The news of Jerry Sandusky’s conviction for child molestation has some Christians beating their breasts over their faith’s influence on western civilization. Joe Carter, one of TGC’s aggregators, has a quotation from a piece at the Catholic World Reporter that argues Sandusky would not have been found guilty in the ancient worlds of Greece or Rome:
If Sandusky would have lived 2000 years ago, he would not have been found guilty of anything. He would not even have been noticed. His actions would have been entirely unremarkable. There would have been no disgust, no anger. The verdict would have been innocent, and in fact, the notion that he was guilty of anything would have been unintelligible.
Carter jumps on the bandwagon:
For 2,000 years, the influence of Christ has had a profound—yet underestimated—influence on all aspects of Western culture. We often take for granted that without the “salt and light” of Christianity, behaviors that we consider disgusting and taboo would be accepted and commonplace. But what will happen if the influence of Christ and his followers continues to wane?
Discerning which is more remarkable here — the bad taste or the theological blunder — is difficult to say. Why would someone use this occasion to boast about the cultural effects of one’s faith? Why not show a little humility, mixed in with a dose of compassion for both Sandusky’s family, not to mention the victims (and their families), and back away from exploiting this story in the culture wars? Is this really going to persuade anyone on the other side or will it confirm the Religious Right’s reputation for self-congratulatory righteousness (and thus inspiring the faithful)?
At the same time, I thought the gospel was not about punishment for sin but forgiveness from its guilt and penalty. If the Gospel Coalition is going to stand up for the gospel, wouldn’t a fitting perspective here be to suggest that Christ might forgive even a sinner like Jerry Sandusky (if he repents and trusts in Christ)? But that kind of message doesn’t play so well in the culture wars where Christians invariably want more law and less forgiveness. Mind you, this is not a plea for anarchy or libertinism, not even a return to Rome or Athens. It is simply to show that the way of the gospel and the church’s ministry is distinct from the sword of the magistrate and the justice it wields.
This kind of historical credit-taking is downright unbecoming since it seems to attribute to Christianity (in a very whiggish way — how Roman Catholics go whiggy is another matter) all the blessings of modern society. To keep modern historical advances in perspective, a recent piece by Diedre N. McCloskey in The New Republic on happiness may bring these cultural warriors back down to a complicated earth. Here is an important excerpt that suggests Christianity did not give us all the benefits that some would have us think. The Enlightenment deserves a little credit (or blame depending on how you interpret the turn from otherworldliness to worldly preoccupations:
On a long view, understand, it is only recently that we have been guiltlessly obsessed with either pleasure or happiness. In secular traditions, such as the Greek or the Chinese, a pleasuring version of happiness is downplayed, at any rate in high theory, in favor of political or philosophical insight. The ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi observed of some goldfish in a pond, “See how happy they are!” A companion replied, “How do you know they are happy?” Zhuangzi: “How do you know I don’t know?” In Christianity, for most of its history, the treasure, not pleasure, was to be stored up in heaven, not down here where thieves break in. After all, as a pre-eighteenth-century theologian would put it—or as a modern and mathematical economist would, too—an infinite afterlife was infinitely to be preferred to any finite pleasure attainable in earthly life.
The un-happiness doctrine made it seem pointless to attempt to abolish poverty or slavery or wife-beating. A coin given to the beggar rewarded the giver with a leg-up to heaven, a mitzvah, a hasanaat; but the ancient praise for charity implied no plan to adopt welfare programs or to grant rights of personal liberty or to favor a larger national income. A life of sitting by the West Gate with a bowl to beg was, after all, an infinitesimally small share of one’s life to come. Get used to it: For now and for the rest of your life down here, it’s your place in the great chain of being. Take up your cross, and quit whining. What does it matter how miserable you are in this life if you’ll get pie in the sky when you die? Such fatalism in many religions—“God willing,” we say, “im yirtzeh hashem,” “insh’Allah,” “deo volente”—precluded idle talk of earthly happiness.
Then, in the eighteenth century, our earthly happiness became important to us, in high intellectual fashion. By 1776, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was an unoriginal formulation of what we all, of course, now admitted that we chiefly wanted. John Locke had taught, in 1677, that “the business of men [is] to be happy in this world by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life, health, ease, and pleasure”—though he added piously, “and by the comfortable [that is, comforting] hopes of another life when this is ended.” By 1738, the Comte de Mirabeau wrote to a friend, recommending simply, “[W]hat should be our only goal: happiness.”
“Our only goal.” To see how strange such a remark is, consider whether it could have been uttered by a leader of opinion in 1538. Martin Luther? Michelangelo? Charles V? No. They sought heavenly, artistic, or political glory—not something so domestic as happiness. Yet, in the late seventeenth century, even Anglican priests commenced preaching that God wanted us to be happy as much as holy. They called it “eudaemonism.” Anglicans and, astonishingly, some New England Congregationalists turned against the old, harsh, Augustinian-Calvinist line. We are not, declared the eudaemonists, mere sinners in the hands of an angry God, worms unworthy of grace. We are God’s beloved creatures, his pets.
The eudaemonistic turn was a Very Good Thing, resulting in fresh projects to better our stay here on Earth, some of them remarkably successful. Democracy was one, since, if you followed the fashion for universal happiness, it became impossible to go on insisting that what really mattered was the pleasure of the Duke or the Lord Bishop. Enlightened despots of the era claimed to seek the good of all, which paradoxically gave the populace the idea that maybe they themselves could do it.
Parallel with the stirrings of democracy and its accompanying welfarism, advocating for hospitals and free public education, was a new bourgeois dignity and liberty. Starting in Holland and England, and in the North American colonies of the English, the paired bourgeois revaluations combined to cause modern enrichment. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that “all the English colonies [in North America] at the time of their birth … seemed destined to present the development of … the bourgeois and democratic liberty of which the history of the world did not yet offer a complete model.” Or again about the first industrial nation: “Looking at the turn given to the human spirit in England by political life; seeing the Englishman … inspired by the sense that he can do anything. … I am in no hurry to inquire whether nature has scooped out ports for him, and given him coal and iron.”