Review Author: Jason M. Morgan, April 2022, New Oxford Review.
The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great. By Ben Shapiro.Publisher: Broadside Books. Pages: 288..Price: $27.99.
The Person of Jesus Christ is the hinge of all human history. The Messiah for whom the Jews had waited broke into our world in Bethlehem and called everyone to Himself. The law of the jungle was overturned like the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple; the people living in darkness were shown a new light of reconciliation to the living God. What had been foretold by the prophets, hoped for by the Baptist, and announced by the angel came true in the baby born to die. Henceforth, we have all had to make a choice: whether to take this all as it is or refuse the redemption offered us in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Holy Book about Him is in two parts, prolegomena and consummation, precisely because He is the center point of the human drama. The Old Testament gives way to the New because the old world was overcome by the Resurrection. Challenges to the unity of Christ and His Church have been not cultural but doctrinal. Albigensianism, Lutheranism, Docetism, Islam: these heresies distort the Church and her Head, Jesus. Particularly noxious have been Lutheranism (and its various Protestant iterations) and Islam, which claim to go beyond Jesus in founding a new church, an ape of the real thing.
For 2,000 years, however, Christians held firm. Neither Saracen nor Wittenbergian succeeded in adding a third scroll to the Bible. Christ and His Church have been the final word, and the Catholic missionaries who went out over the millennia have desired that all men be baptized into the true Body of Christ and thus saved.
The civilization that was built up in celebration of Jesus, the world that arose to glorify His Name and consecrate His resurrected Body and Blood for all to partake of, was, fittingly, named for Him: Christendom. Christendom had no azimuth; it was rooted in Jesus and His Church, not in a particular culture or set of customs. Adherents of the Risen Christ have communicated in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Amharic, Slavonic, Magyar, Vietnamese, Korean, Quechua, and a host of other tongues. The Body of Christ was tragically split along linguistic, interpretive, and political fissures as the Roman Empire disintegrated, but the Church remains today as she was when the Son of God first walked with Galileans and Samaritans: universal. Babel was vanquished at Pentecost, and ever since, there has been no east or west, no Jew or Greek in the Ecclesia.
It is, therefore, curious now to hear all this summed up as “the West.” It is even odder to learn that the West is “Judeo-Christian.” Judeo-Christianity ended with the Acts of the Apostles and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. And the West — Gaul, perhaps, or Hibernia, or Morocco across the Mediterranean — was inconsequential: churches and their altars were built facing east, because Easter had changed everything about the way humans understood themselves and their place in the world. When I hear politicians and pundits speak of the “Judeo-Christian West,” I wonder what they are talking about. I think what many of them mean, whether they admit it, is a “third Rome,” a third part to Scripture, the same old attempt to overcome the Church with a revamped brand that was tried by John Calvin and later by the Sankt Galen group.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s book The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great serves as the manifesto of the heresy we might call “Westernism.” The heresy is simple: It substitutes the remains of Christendom the civilization for the Church that Christendom has largely abandoned. It does this to accommodate the so-called Enlightenment, which was the rebellion, to include Protestantism and every darkness that flowed from it, against the Church, against dogma, against the Magisterium, and against the “Judeo-Christian” anthropology that sees man created in the image and likeness of God.
Westernism wants to keep the benefits of this arrangement while maintaining the Enlightenment conceit that man can have the world on his own terms and not God’s. For those of finer conscience than the usual Enlightenment devil, there is “Judeo-Christianity,” the Enlightenment religion the only tenet of which is that Jesus was not really God and so there is no need to make the choice the Crucifixion demands of us.
To be sure, Shapiro is not trying, intentionally, to do any of this in The Right Side of History. He has done excellent work in arguing for sanity in American politics and for a respect for the dignity of all men. Shapiro is a fearless pro-lifer and has been in the cockpit fighting the worst of the worst of our rotten culture in every conceivable media. I admire him and hope he will continue doing so. It is not Shapiro’s intentions that mar The Right Side of History but the things he is unable to see.
The problem is not that Shapiro is fighting the enemy but that he doesn’t realize that he, too, is on their side. Here is Shapiro on how he understands his mission: “In order to fix ourselves…we must examine what we believe. We believe freedom is built upon the twin notions that God created every human in His image, and that human beings are capable of investigating and exploring God’s world. Those notions were born in Jerusalem and Athens.” So far, so good. But notice Shapiro does not go on to say that Jerusalem and Athens were combined in the Church, that it was not Jerusalem or Athens — both of which were forgettable backwaters for most of the past 2,000 years — that “built science [and] human rights,” or that “lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose.” That was Rome.
And then comes the Enlightenment bait-and-switch, the moment that makes the heresy. “Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia,” Shapiro writes. But the Treaty of Westphalia was not a product of Jerusalem or Athens. the moment that makes the heresy. “Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia,” Shapiro writes. But the Treaty of Westphalia was not a product of Jerusalem or Athens. It was an attempt to contain the destruction of Christendom, the revolt against Rome, being wrought by proto-Enlightenment hero and arch-heretic Martin Luther. Westphalia was the atomization of Christendom, and it set into motion the horrors we have witnessed ever since.
Shapiro sees clearly that we have lost something tremendous and are suffering greatly as a result. But he gets both the time scale and the lost treasure wrong. “We believe we can reject Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law and satisfy ourselves with intersectionality, or scientific materialism, or progressive politics, or authoritarian governance, or nationalistic solidarity,” he writes. “We can’t.” Hear, hear. But then he writes, “We’ve spent the last two centuries carving ourselves off from the roots of our civilization.”
The Protestant revolt was openly countenanced in 1517, over 500 years ago, not 200. Earlier in the book, he writes, “We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring moral subjectivism and the rule of passion. And we are watching our civilization collapse into age-old tribalism, individualistic hedonism, and moral subjectivism.” But it was not “Judeo-Christian values” against which Luther, and then Voltaire, Tom Paine, the Bible-snipping Thomas Jefferson, the Masonic George Washington, and the rest of the Enlightenment crew were rebelling. It was against the Church; it was against Rome. Rome have they hated; Rome have they sought to destroy.
The Right Side of History begins with a false premise — namely, that what we have lost is not Rome and the Church but their odd and slivered avatars, Athens and Jerusalem — and so the rest of it is off-center and unbalanced. Shapiro tries to remedy this by including in his narrative a heaping sheaf of Big Ideas, but in the end, the one bad idea on which the book is based undoes all his hard work.
Sometimes, it must be said, Shapiro works far too hard…. (Emphasis added)
Jason M. Morgan, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, teaches history, language, and philosophy at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. He is the author, most recently, of Law and Society in Imperial Japan: Suehiro Izutarō and the Search for Equity (Cambria Press, 2020).