In order to resist the militant anti-religious ideologies of our age, we can derive valuable lessons from both the French Revolution of 1789 and the Cultural Revolution which swept the Western world during the 1960s, argues Patrick J. Byrne.
B.A. “Bob” Santamaria (1915-1998) proposed in his seminal 1973 paper, Philosophies in Collision, that Western societies would be shaped by whichever of three contending philosophies triumphed in the mid-20th century’s cultural revolution — Christianity, libertarianism or Marxism.
Judeo-Christianity respects the integrity and irreplaceability of every human being. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on natural law, which is in turn based on the reality that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.
In particular, all the great faiths respect marriage and the family as the foundation stone of society. The family is the domestic church, the primary educator of children, the primary carer of the young and the elderly and the provider of emotional and moral support to its members.
Hence the ordering of society — all its laws and institutions — should aim to support and strengthen the family. In such a society, the human person flourishes. The policies of the state should be ordered to the needs of the family, because the state derives its authority from its citizens, and every citizen is a member of a family.
Santamaria argued that where the family is strong, the churches and society are strong; and, equally, where the family is weak, the churches and society are weak.
Libertarianism, or secular humanism, has a fundamentally different philosophy, arguing that “I have a right to do as I please”. Libertarians argued that the human person would flourish only if freed from all authoritarian structures — from the oppressive rule of law and from moral and social strictures imposed by the church and the family, which together were responsible for restricting sexual and other pleasures.
The strategy of the libertarians was to change the law on a whole range of social issues to achieve population and birth control, divorce on demand, abortion on demand, abolition of censorship, and the legalisation of euthanasia. This would create a new set of moral norms, because for most people what is legal is moral.
At its centre was a sexual revolution that struck at the heart of marriage, family and religion. Santamaria said that this philosophy would break down the family and create a welfare state that would be financially unsustainable. The economy cannot fund welfare structures big enough to replace the wholesale breakdown of families.
The libertarians have spawned successful secular movements that are challenging the West’s 2,000-year-old Judeo-Christian-based civilisation.
The organisational method of these movements has been that of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). He believed that a cultural hegemony could create a new set of norms and “common sense” values.
Impressed by the Catholic Church’s hegemony over his native Italian culture, he believed that Marxism could supersede religion only if it also met people’s spiritual, material, cultural and social needs. This meant influencing all aspects of the culture.
Committed Marxists could radically transform society not by violently overthrowing the state, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks had done in Russia in 1917, but by bringing about radical change from within the government and society. They would achieve this by becoming agents of influence in society’s key institutions — the universities, the public service, the media, etc.
The long-term strategy outlined by Gramsci is encapsulated in the phrase, coined in 1967 by a German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke (1940-1979), “The long march through the institutions” (Der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen).
Marxism itself failed as an economic, political and cultural system with the relatively bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist satellite countries during 1989-91. However, Gramsci’s method of achieving cultural hegemony had already become the organisational method of the libertarians in the 1970s.
In Australia, it was radical feminists who pioneered a highly successful organisational model. In 1973, they formed the Women’s Electoral Lobby, which led to a hard-line feminist presence in health departments, medicine, law, the political parties and even the churches. For a time, they had an office of women’s affairs operating next to the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Later, leading feminist identities in the Labor Party, such as former state premiers Joan Kirner (Victoria) and Carmen Lawrence (Western Australia), founded Emily’s List (the acronym “Emily” stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast) to ensure the promotion in the ALP of radical feminists and their policies, particularly the decriminalisation of abortion up to the day of birth (as was done in the state of Victoria in 2008). Parallel, less formal networks operate in the major opposition parties.
This model has been used by other left-wing and libertarian groups, including the same-sex marriage lobby, to advance this cultural revolution. These lobby groups have used the open space created by the secular, democratic state, to win changes to many areas of the law — including abortion, divorce and censorship — and win concessions for their causes in the health, education and welfare systems.
At first, this involved mainly civil, if sometimes tense, debate with people of faith on fundamental issues relating to sex, life, marriage, family and religion. However, in recent years, civil debate has increasingly become a distant memory, having been replaced by militant, aggressive attempts to use state power against those with religious and moral beliefs.
These movements now advocate using various forms of legislation to restrict the practice of religion to worship only, while coercing those with religious beliefs, and those who live according to natural law, to act against their conscience in the public sphere. Militant secularists want to force people of faith to “privatise” their religion.
In 2012, when Australia’s federal parliament considered legalising same-sex marriage, many militant secularist organisations insisted on no exceptions or exemptions being allowed for the churches and people of faith. They wanted nothing less than to force ministers of religion to perform same-sex marriages. In Denmark, legislation requires that when a minister of the state Lutheran Church does not wish to perform a same-sex marriage, his bishop is required to find a minister who will perform the ceremony.
Similar clauses violating the right to conscientious objection are now routinely included in euthanasia and abortion bills/laws, and in the US Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare”.
Indeed, the attacks on life, marriage, family and religion can be found embedded in many of the following:
- charters/bills of rights;
- anti-discrimination laws;
- equal opportunity acts;
- anti-vilification laws;
- same-sex marriage laws; and
- abortion and euthanasia decriminalisation laws.
Once upon a time, people with faith had rights and freedoms. Nowadays, under an array of new laws, churches and people of faith are permitted only “exemptions” and “exceptions” under the law.
Such concessions can be steadily eroded over time, using the “salami” tactic of removing one slice at a time. Meanwhile, when revolutionary new laws are passed in parliaments, they greatly consolidate the new cultural hegemony and become embedded in the educational curriculum.
Furthermore, if a radical measure happens to be defeated in parliament, the matter doesn’t rest there. Such bills are repeatedly put up to parliaments time and again to wear down opposition.
The incessant attacks on life, marriage, family and religion come from an array of stridently secular organisations, including various rights and legal lobby groups, radical feminist organisations, the abortion lobby, same-sex marriage organisations, euthanasia groups, atheist organisations, the Greens, the Sex Party, Emily’s List and the left-wing of the Australian Labor Party, not to mention hard-line secularists in the Liberal and National parties.
Like the Jacobin demagogues who rose to power in France after the 1789 revolution, today’s libertarian forces are deeply hostile to Judeo-Christian norms.
Our cherished religious and civil freedoms are now at stake. If people with religious faith and goodwill fail to stand up and fight these legislative attacks, they will have only themselves to blame when the militant, anti-religious forces tighten the legal noose around those freedoms we have long taken for granted.
Learning from the enemy
The Roman poet Ovid once declared, Fas est et ab hoste doceri (“It is permitted to learn even from your enemy”). People of religious faith can learn much from the Gramscian strategy of the long march through the institutions. They can use it as a broad organisational model to restore a culture that supports, nourishes and defends human life, marriage, family and religion, which in turn will sustain a truly open, tolerant, secular democratic state.
Put another way, people with religious faith and goodwill need to devise a counter-strategy to overcome militant secularism. Rather than remaining passive observers of their own impending fate, they need to organise themselves into what the great British historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) called “creative minorities”, or what the noted French philosopher and political thinker Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) called “prophetic shock minorities”.
They need clear strategies to counter these radical anti-religious forces in all institutions. Those committed to pro-life and pro-family values are needed in political parties to help shape government policies. However, politics is only one part of the arena in which the political and cultural struggle must be waged.
Societies’ norms and “common sense” values, as Gramsci described them, are influenced by far broader spiritual, economic, cultural and social forces. Those forces shape the culture that informs politicians where and how far they can go on an issue.
Consider what would happen if a genuinely pro-life government were elected in Australia. Such a government would immediately face strong opposition from medical, nursing, legal, media, feminist and abortion organisations if it tried to significantly change the law to defend the rights of the unborn child. Thus it is not sufficient to elect a pro-life majority to parliament; it is also necessary to change the culture of the broader society in order to ensure respect for human life from conception onwards.
The point is, a socially conservative counter-revolution must be as well organised and networked as the left-wing, anti-religious Cultural Revolution that swept the Western world in the 1960s.
Creative minorities committed to the defence of life, marriage, family and religious freedom are urgently needed today in the universities, law, medicine, media, education and many other professions.
This counter-revolution requires people who are intellectually well formed and firm in their convictions to provide leadership in their respective professional institutions. Such leaders will carry great weight and influence with politicians and in shaping public opinion.
Leaders in the professions need to have a combination of evidence-based research on the key issues and detailed research-polling to know how to win debates in the wider public arena.
For example, when confronting a parliamentary bill to legalise euthanasia, how is one to counter the emotional arguments that it is cruel and inhuman to refuse euthanasia to a pain-wracked patient?
First, one should be familiarise oneself with the fact that palliative care specialists have the knowledge and experience of how their treatments can greatly alleviate not only pain and suffering, but also the fear of pain.
Second, detailed research-polling has shown that public opinion turns decisively against euthanasia when it is explained that euthanasia is the intentional killing of another person, usually by lethal injection. It is the doctor’s needle, the lethal injection, that drives home the reality of euthanasia to the public.
Professionals particularly need to know how the levers of power work in their respective fields. That is, they need to know how their professional organisations work and ensure that suitable leaders are at the forefront of such organisations. They also need to create their own professional institutes and think tanks.
Nobody can do this alone. Professionals need to develop networks drawing support from their like-minded colleagues.
Most importantly, aspiring leaders and opinion-formers who want to bring about this cultural counter-revolution need the same passionate zeal to change society as their leftist and libertarian adversaries have displayed over the past 50 years. Their zeal has been akin to that of the radical Jacobins during and after the 1789 French Revolution.
The Irish-born British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who is regarded as the father of modern conservatism, wrote extensively on the French Revolution. In 1790, a year after the revolution, he published his famous polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he uncannily predicted the subsequent course of events — how the victorious Jacobins, after a deceptively quiet early phase of ruling, would embark on a reign of terror and execute the monarch. After that, France would descend into anarchy until a military figure emerged to restore order.
Understanding the enemy
However, it was not until 1796 (the year before his death), when he wrote his four Letters on the Regicide Peace, that Burke expressed his exasperation at the inability of the old European elites to stand up to the blood-thirsty French revolutionaries. “In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views the Jacobins are our superiors,” he said.
Burke observed that the Jacobins were completely indifferent to their material circumstances. They were prepared to suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. In contrast, the easy-going British elite were no match for their fanatical foes.
Dr Corey Robin, a lecturer in political science at the City University of New York, has written: “It was Burke’s great fear that the British elite — as well as the other monarchies of old Europe — could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate.
“Where the Jacobins had ‘conquered the finest parts of Europe’ with an ‘annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce’, the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates….
“Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the Revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal.” (Corey Robin’s blog, September 27, 2011).
Burke lambasted the British aristocracy, and particularly the British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and his allies.
He said of them: “They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.”
Burke lamented that these “creatures of the desk” and “creatures of favour”, charged with defending the old orders of Europe, lacked the “generous wildness of Quixotism”, the spirit and zeal needed to take on the Jacobins.
Burke on another occasion famously warned, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Today, we need zeal among our creative minorities, or else complacency and a lack of commitment will see our cherished values and freedoms eroded, our religion restricted to a private sphere and the lives of many diminished or even destroyed.
Those of various religious faiths need to commit themselves to the defence of life, marriage, family and religion, and thereby ensure the future flourishing of an open, tolerant and democratically-governed society.
We need to develop organisation and networking within political parties and all the professions.
In 1845, Karl Marx reminded the revolutionary left of the essentially practical nature of the political task before them. He wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
We ourselves can learn from this strategy, which has served leftists and libertarians so well to date, and employ similar means to bring about the cultural counter-revolution that the Western world so urgently needs.
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council. This article is an expanded version of a speech he delivered to the World Congress of Families, held in Sydney on May 16, 2013.
B.A. Santamaria, The Price of Freedom. The Movement — After Ten Years (Melbourne: Campion Press, 1964), ch. 16: “The Price of Freedom”.
B.A. Santamaria, “Philosophies in Collision”, in J.N. Santamaria (ed.), Man — How Will He Survive? (1973), transcripts of papers delivered at the Conference on Population and Ecology, held during the 40th International Eucharistic Conference, organised by the Department of Community Medicine, St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, in February 1973, pp. 22-39.
Corey Robin, “Revolutionaries of the Right: The deep roots of conservative radicalism”, Corey Robin’s blog, September 27, 2011.