The traditional view of the West, inspired by Christianity, holds that a person’s primary identity is as a child of God. His defining attribute is his immortal soul which, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit and leading a moral life, can elevate anyone of any background to the heights of blessedness and contemplation. Rather than genetics, the Venerable Bede wrote, “Love alone, therefore, distinguishes between the children of God and the children of the devil.”
From the first, Christianity was multiethnic, from the first Ethiopian convert (Acts 8) to the bustling African churches that have remained in an unbroken succession to this day. In the fourth century, St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote:
Very glistening are the pearls of Ethiopia. ... He that gave light to the Gentiles, both to the Ethiopians and unto the Indians did His bright beams reach. … The dark Ethiopic women became pearls for the Son; He offered them up to the Father, as a glistening crown from the Ethiopians.
Among other things, this should also dispel the conceit that Christianity is a slavemaster’s religion, and Islam the peculiar emancipator of Africans.
As Roger Scruton wrote in his newest book On Human Nature, this religious view became synthetized with philosophical concepts to define each individual as a person capable of rational thought and, thus, requiring an I-Thou relationship. Human dignity and reason demanded that public philosophy be carefully developed through rational arguments to which all were invited, heard out, and engaged.
The system of government this produces is limited, participatory, and harmonious. A limited government must respect people’s rights and conscience, allowing maximum freedom to live this out in the economic realm. The nature of Western government may be best described in an extract from a profound run-on sentence in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government: “Reason, which is [natural] law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Since all are “furnished with like faculties … there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses.”
It is precisely this conception of government that hangs in the balance. Traditional Western views of human dignity and universally binding norms of reason tore down the barriers, created mutual respect, and developed a culture of free dialogue, economic freedom, and ordered liberty. Identity politics paves the road to irrationality and a thousand more tragedies like Charlottesville. Only jettisoning it and embracing dignity and reason can restore the respect missing from our brittle debate.
(Photo credit: Public domain.)