Western Survival Depends on the Sacred
(David Goldman, March 31, 2022)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
David Goldman is an American economist, music critic, and author, best known for his series of online essays in the Asia Times under the pseudonym Spengler. He is the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and a member of the Board of Advisors of Sino-Israel Government Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL). According to the Claremont Review of Books, the “Spengler” columns in the Asia Times have attracted readership in the millions.
His analyses of global events have become highly regarded. Former C.I.A. National Intelligence Council Vice Chairman Herbert E. Meyer said, “Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service, and we will all give the same answer: Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.” Goldman concealed his identity under the “Spengler” pseudonym until 2009, when he revealed his identity in the Asia Times article, “And Spengler is…” and the First Things article “Confessions of a Coward”.
Goldman regularly appears as a guest on CNBC’s Larry Kudlow Program, where he has been an outspoken critic of Federal Reserve efforts to resuscitate the American economy. He is the author of How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam is Dying Too) and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of the Nations.
He previously spoke at Westminster on the subject of: Will China overtake the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower?
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. We are particularly delighted today to welcome back to the Westminster Institute, David Goldman, who is first of all a renaissance man. He is an American economist, financial analyst, a music critic. Actually, more than that, he is a music theatrician, and I would simply express my own personal appreciation for David’s having helped me understand more clearly what I have sensed was wrong with Rickard Wagner’s music, but that is a side point.
David is also a prolific author. He is best known for his series of online essays in the Asia Times under the pseudonym Spengler. He is the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. His analyses of global events are highly regarded. Here is a sample. Herbert Meyer, former CIA National Intelligence Council Vice Chairman, said, “Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service, and we will all give the same answer, Spengler. David Goldman’s Spengler columns provide more insight than the CIA, Mi6, and Mossad combined.”
David previously spoke at the Westminster Institute on the subject of Will China Overtake the U.S. as the World’s Leading Superpower, one of our most viewed videos, and another talk on his latest book, You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sinoform the World. He is also the author of How Civilizations Die and Why Islam is Dying and It is Not the End of the World, It is Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of Nations. Today, David will be speaking on how Western survival depends on the sacred. Welcome back, David.
Robert, I am overwhelmed by the kindness of your introduction and all I can say is that it is a tremendous honor to share this platform of the Westminster Institute. I am very grateful for it. I should like to begin with an aphorism. The Viennese wit Karl Kraus said aphorisms are always either half true or half again true, and I think this is one of them, and that is human beings cannot stand mortality without the promise of immortality. There has been an enormous amount written about demographic winter, and I think every government in the world from China to the United States to Ukraine to Germany is alarmed by the aging of the population, low birth rates, and the prospect of rapidly diminishing populations with everything they mean for our ability to support social security and health systems and ultimately to maintain the viability of cultures.
Ukraine and Taiwan
Right now, in the end of March of 2022, our attention in the news is focused on two countries on opposite ends of the world, Ukraine and Taiwan, which are in the case of Ukraine, a tragic cockpit of war at the moment, [and] in the case of Taiwan, a possible flashpoint for war in the future. And one thing that Taiwan and Ukraine ironically have in common is some of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Taiwan a couple of years ago was actually the absolute bottom of the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook by ranking for total fertility rate. Ukraine is close to the bottom. Taiwan had a fertility rate of about one child per female. Ukraine was around 1.4, 1.3. And of course, if this occurs a few generations from now, the Ukrainian language will not be viable, and Taiwan will not be a viable entity.
But of course, it is not simply those two parts of the world.
Global Demographic Ruin
The average fertility rate among industrial nations is only 1.5. Replacement is about 2.1, so over time many countries will find themselves demographically challenged and may in fact become as hollowed out as the Roman Empire was in its dotage in the fourth and fifth and sixth centuries, or the Greek city-states were starting with the second and first centuries BCE. We face demographic ruin.
Why should this be the case?
Statistically, it is hard to make a simple measure of what factors affect demography. Something called the great demographic transition occurs between traditional society, which is based in agriculture, which always has large families, and modern society, where social security systems make it possible for people to get along at their old age without their own children because the government taxes everyone’s children to pay for retirements. Among those countries which have not yet made the great demographic transition because they are still largely rural, [they] have not been industrialized, we still observe for fertility rates of seven or eight children per family, notably, in sub-Saharan Africa.
In those countries which have become urbanized in the last generation (for example, Iran, Egypt, [and] many of the Muslim countries), we see a radical drop in fertility rates. In the case of Iran, which was largely traditional in the 1970s, the average Iranian woman had seven children, and today has fewer than two, so Iran faces, ironically, the fastest aging of any population in the world.
The Economics of Declining Birthrates
Now, what makes people in the industrial nations after the great democratic transition decide to have children? We know that until the 1930s, children had a monetary value because there are numerous court cases, very extensive record of damages cases for children who were accidentally killed, and courts would assign monetary value to a child who was expected to work and contribute money to a household. Once we got to universal high school education and, well, very high levels of tertiary education, children no longer had a monetary value.
When the farm children worked in early industrial society, children were children. Now [they] cost about two hundred thousand dollars per family, according to the Department of Agriculture, so the decision to have children is no longer an economic one, and that of course is the driver of the great demographic transition. The decision is a spiritual one. Married couples today will decide whether they want more expensive vacations, bigger houses, fancier cars, more perks or children. It is a trade-off, and what we find looking at cross-sectional data around the world is that by far the single biggest factor explaining differences in fertility rates across the developed world is the degree of religious observance.
So, for example, in the United States, we have a fertility rate now below 1.8. between 1.7 and 1.8. It came down with the COVID epidemic, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but only 10 years ago we were above replacement at 2.1. We were, in fact, the only industrial country with a fertility rate at replacement except of course for Israel, which is a different story.
But that average fertility rate at replacement that we had 10 years ago masked the fact that we really had two Americas. We had a white America, largely, or secular America, which had a fertility rate exactly the same as the Europeans in around 1.4, 1.5. And then we had two minorities which had a fertility rate of around three, and that was evangelical Protestants and Hispanic Catholics.
What has happened in the past 10 years is the evangelical birth rate has tapered off a bit. We do not have detailed data, but the anecdotal evidence indicates that has fallen, and we know that the Hispanic birthrate has fallen faster than any other. We do not know exactly why, but the probable reason is simply that Hispanic Catholics have been absorbed into the broader culture, in a certain sense corrupted by it, and that the religious impulse which led Hispanics to have more children in the past has diminished.
This is a Liberal Failure
So now our demographic profile overall is not much different from that of Western Europe. When we look at the demographic decline of the West from the standpoint of our body politic and our notion of what is important to our nation and others, I think we have to look at the demographics as a proof of failure of the liberal idea. We have in a certain sense the ultimate liberal utopia where individual rights are now the supreme guide to everything, including a right to privacy, which one can say was invented fairly recently. We now have the right to change gender. We have the right to marry whomever we want of whatever gender. We have the right to identify as whatever we want and be recognized for that. We have the right as the Supreme Court said in its decision supporting same-sex marriage, the right to define and practice an identity.
America’s New Identity Politics
So the extreme of liberalism, which is individual rights separate from society, has given us the kind of dystopia where we feel no obligation and no impulse to produce a new generation, which means eventually that will die out and our sense of self will be self-liquidated. If our purpose in life is to invent our identity, then of course we are going to abhor our parents and our ancestors or whatever came before them because in order to invent our own identity separately from the past, we need to reject it, and if we do that, we might presume that our children will abhor us as much as we abhor the identity of our parents.
And indeed, we have a young generation now which is being taught that virtually everything that comes down from the past is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and in other ways completely evil, so there is not one of the founding fathers who is not in some way tainted by racism, that is not one of the great authors of history who is tainted by racism or misogyny. There is nothing in previous culture which cannot be brought before the people’s tribunal, accused of treason to the new woke politics of identity, and sent to the guillotine and be beheaded.
That is why, of course, we have stopped studying classics. You can barely read a book like Huckleberry Finn, the closest thing we have to a great American novel, because it contains the n-word and so forth. We have the first generation in the West which believes that it has invented the world completely fresh, has no past except one to deplore and reject, and therefore has no sense of the future, and that will become a self-liquidating proposition over time.
A Sacred Alternative
Now, how can we look at the body politic in a different way? One of the great Jewish thinkers of the past generation, a man with whom I had the privilege to study, Michael Wyschogrod, makes a point about any constitutional system, that if we are to have a constitution, which constrains the day-to-day capriciousness of a majority, we can only do that to the standpoint of an idea of the sacred. Otherwise, a 51 percent or 50.001 percent vote of the House of Representatives should be able to change absolutely everything, overrun minority rights, rewrite all the laws, create a different society and so forth.
If we simply believe in the liberal idea of a collection of individuals, then the majority of the individuals should have absolute sovereignty, but of course it does not. It does not because our founders had the wisdom to place constraints on the action of the majority through separation of powers and other elements of constitutional law, which make it difficult for a majority to impose its view unless it is a very, very big majority or it is a majority that stays in power for a very long time. Any kind of fundamental change requires either great preponderance or considerable duration.
The only justification for limits on the absolute sovereignty of the majority can come from a notion of the sacred. In the case of the United States, this is both biblical and philosophical. The notion that men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights is ultimately a biblical idea, and without American religion and particularly the American Protestantism, which motivated the vast majority of the founders, it is very difficult to imagine an American Constitution and constraints on the majority which allow us to operate in a way in which majority and minority can find a way to achieve a modus vivendi and work together over time.
The Erosion of the Protestant Consensus
What we have in the absence of this sense of the sacred is a polarization, which is extremely dangerous. When I was a young man, according to the Pew Research Survey, two-thirds of Americans identified as Protestants. Now only one-third of Americans identify as Protestants. The proportion of Catholics has remained fairly steady in the low twenties, though the ethnic composition, of course, has changed considerably with a very large number of Hispanics making up that that contingent.
But if we look at the Protestant consensus, which was really the foundation of America’s idea of the sacred going back to its founding, with the erosion of Protestantism that consensus has disappeared. And the result is that there is no possibility of a consensus between minority and majority. We have the demonization of opposing views now. We have a liberal political class, which considers it a prerogative to censor even a sitting U.S. President. Donald Trump was stripped of his Twitter account.
We have censorship on the major social media platforms to the extent that when The New York Post 18 months ago discovered Hunter Biden’s laptop with emails that suggested some improper behavior, the major social media platforms prevented one of America’s largest newspapers, The New York Post, from tweeting or posting on Facebook its own major story. You will recall that 51 senior U.S. intelligence officers produced a public letter, denouncing The New York Post report as Russian disinformation (with no evidence [to support their claim]). Since then, even The New York Times has admitted that the original report was true, but dissent was squelched.
At this point to argue for a traditional biblical view of the human person, the creation of people into two senses, which is at the beginning of the Bible, and a preferential view for a traditional nuclear family is almost certainly grounds for dismissal from positions at most major universities and in fact many major corporations. So without this sense of the sacred on which the country was founded, we have very little left to unite us as a people and we are likely to splinter.
And we have what the late Angelo Codevilla, one of our great political theorists who sadly passed away last year, called a cold civil war. We hope and pray that it will not turn into a hot civil war. If we look around the world, we are not the only country with a sense of the sacred. I think the fundamentals of every country stem from that.
The Catholic Church after the Roman Empire
When the Roman Empire collapsed with depopulation in war, probably losing two-thirds of the world’s population in the seventh and eighth centuries, it was the Catholic Church that constituted the nations of Europe. Saint Isidore of Seville, Saint Gregory of Tours, and others explained to the barbarian rulers, the Merovingians and the Visigoths, respectively in France and Spain, that they could be more than the simple tribal chieftain of a group of barbarian invaders into the ruins of the Roman Empire, they could be the founders of great kingdoms and great people if they styled themselves on the Kingdom of David and sought the approval and endorsement of the one God of creation. And of course, it was the church that developed national languages, national literature, taught literacy, and made the nations of Europe what they are, so all of our nations begin with a sense of the sacred.
The British System
And an interesting comparison to me is the American system and the British political system. Britain on paper is one of the least religious countries in the world. I think attendance at Church of England services is in single digits, and in fact, most of the attendance of the Anglican confession, Anglican communion in the world rather are people who were converted to Christianity in former British colonies mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, the British monarchy, which has a history of more than a thousand years of continuity, is now by every opinion poll more popular than it has been at any time on record.
One senior churchman of the Church of England suggested to me that in the absence of traditional religion, the British cling to the idea of the monarchy as a foundation of identity and a fountain of the sacred. So although the British parliamentary system on paper has no chance and balances along the lines of the American constitutional system, the existence of the monarchy stands as a surety to the British people that a passing majority in parliament will not be able to take away their traditional rights. It is an unwieldy and complex and from our standpoint sometimes a quaint system but has been fairly effective.
The system that we have seen so many governments and so many republics pass through France and Italy is too complex to talk about, what their political systems look like, but the countries that seem to show some promise of coming out of the demographic swoon that we have talked about are those which have tried to foster a sense of national identity. In some cases, I think that is quite encouraging. In some cases, it may be tragic.
And I would like to mention two examples. One is Hungary and the other is Russia.
Hungary and Russia
There are very few cases where countries that have experienced severe demographic decline managed to climb back up, and we have seen considerable improvements in demographics in both Hungary and Russia, coming from lows registered in the late 1990s or mid 2000s. So in the case of Hungary, the Magyar fertility rate, the ethnic Hungarian fertility rate in the 2010 census was only around 0.8 children per female. That is really at the bottom of the world rankings, and threatened you know a very short demographic disaster. It has come back up to about 1.5.
Now, that is still well below breakeven, but it is still something of an accomplishment and the Hungarian government did this really in two ways. One was by trying to foster a positive sense of what it means to be Hungarian, and secondly, by subsidies for fertility. Generally, we found that subsidies for having children help, but they do not help enough because no matter what you pay people, it is really a decision to change your life completely, to bring up a child, and you cannot really pay people enough to do that if they do not have a spiritual impulse to do that.
But when I was first in Hungary 15, 20 years ago, Budapest was a drab and boring city [with a] very high suicide rate, not much night life [and] economically depressed. Budapest today is one of the most happening places in the world, terrific theater, terrific concerts, wonderful classical music, great restaurants, including some of the best Kosher food in the world (the only edible gefilte fish I have had anywhere, by the way).
And I think there is a sense of optimism and hope for the future, which has contributed to this. I give Viktor Orbán a certain amount of credit for having led the government this direction. I do not think Hungary is necessarily an ideal example, but it is certainly worth studying as a source of improvement.
Now, in the case of Russia, the fertility rate in Russia had fallen in 1999/2000 to about 1.1 children for female. Now, Russia in the 1990s had hyperinflation, mass impoverishment, a sense of absent chaos, the country had been robbed blind by oligarchs who made off with the properties of the government as it was privatized, deep demoralization, [and] in 1998 the country temporarily went bankrupt.
Since then, the fertility rate has climbed back up to around 1.8 children per female. We do not know how much of that reflects Russia’s large Muslim population, but from what I can tell it is pretty much an across-the-board improvement and that is associated with a revival of religious life in Russia, particularly a revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. In particular, Russian women, according to surveys by the Pew Institute, identify with Russian Orthodoxy to a much greater extent. It is a religious comeback from communism.
Now, Russia’s sense of national identity has also produced, I think, a deep sense of injury from Russia’s treatment by the West, and enthusiasm for President Putin’s determination to do damage to his neighbor Ukraine. In no way do I endorse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I think it is a reprehensible thing, but from all the information we have, his popularity has risen sharply in the lead up to and during the invasion. So instead of a popularity rating of around 60 percent, he appears to have a popularity rating of around 80 percent according to independent polls. So Russian patriotism and national identity appears to be associated with both a religious revival and a demographic revival.
The Dangers of Nationalism
And it is important for us to remember that national identity, although it is an indispensable thing, our sense of a future depends on belong to a nation which can preserve our values, our language, our culture, and provide an environment where our children can grow up in a way that resembles the way we grow up. Without a nation, we cannot do that. Nonetheless, national identity can be tragic if nations clash among each other. And I think part of what we are seeing with Ukraine and Russia, I do not mean to oversimplify it, is a clash of national identities, which reminds me again of the terrible days of the first world war where every one of the combatants in somewhere or other identified themselves as the chosen people of Europe with a special right to beat up their neighbors.
So the sacred is a terribly powerful thing. It is also a dangerous thing.
As it happens, last Saturday we read the section of the Book of Leviticus called Shemini or the eighth day. You may recall the biblical incident where two of the sons of Aaron approached the altar where God had revealed his presence in the Tabernacle that the Israelites had built in the wilderness. They constructed [a burnt offering] with unauthorized [fire], what the Bible calls foreign fire, and they died on the spot. The flame consumed them.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, had a remarkable commentary on this in which he said nothing is more powerful or more dangerous than a sense of the sacred because it evokes passions from us that can get out of control, and what the Bible is telling us in this tragic incident of the death of the sons of Aaron, the high priest, is that when we embrace the sacred, we also have to embrace the discipline that allows us to use it in a controlled way.
And I think what we have seen in Russia is an undisciplined breakout of the sense of the sacred and a tragic one. What we have to aim for I think in the United States is a restoration of the sense of the sacred in a way that allows us to overcome these terrible divisions without what Angelo Codevilla called a cold civil war turning into a hot civil war, and that is an enormous challenge for those of us who believe in the sacred, who hold in some way to the traditional Judeo-Christian religions, and hope that the religious spirit of the founding will continue to be a guide for the United States in the future. And with that I would like to thank you, Robert Reilly, for your kindness in letting me talk to your audience and stop there. Thanks.
Other States Approaching the State of Despair
Robert R. Reilly:
David. Thank you very much for those insightful remarks. I do not know whether to ask you specific questions or simply go to the biggest issue you raise in this brilliant article, “European Survival Depends on the Sacred.” Of course, we have expanded that to pretty much the West’s survival depends on it. So, in your penultimate paragraph, you state this, “Humankind cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality. The hope of immortality is founded on the sense of the sacred. The history of the world is the history of mankind’s search for immortality. When the nations of the world see their demise not as a distant prospect over the horizon but as a foreseeable outcome, they perish of despair.” That is a very powerful, even prophetic remark.
You have spoken of a demographic comeback in Hungary and of Russia. What other states in the West or nations in the West do you think approach that state of despair simply because they have no sense of or promise of immortality and therefore meaning in their lives?
The saddest thing in terms of demographics is the extremely low fertility rate of countries which used to have some of the highest, particularly Catholic countries (Spain, Italy). Quebec is another example. They have among the lowest fertility rates of any country in the world, and that corresponds almost precisely to the decline of religious observance in those countries.
So whereas the large Italian family used to be a cliché, Italians have one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. I think Italy loses, if my memory serves, four hundred thousand people a year through death, immigration, net loss of population, and they have been replaced largely by immigrants from Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.
Spain is in a similar situation. Spain, of course, has had some immigration from Latin America, but there are limits to that. Germany: the ethnic Germans, people of German birth, have an extremely low fertility rate, 1.2, 1.3. Because immigrants in Germany have a much larger fertility rate, the overall fertility rate is around 1.5.
France is extremely hard to calculate because we do not know how many immigrants there are. The French do not separate out the data and you have to triangulate, but most demographers [who] have looked at it believe that native French have a very low fertility rate and that is compensated by a very high immigrant fertility rate, which means that in many parts of France, the majority of kids in classrooms are immigrants. The case in Germany, I forget the exact numbers, but something in the range of half of children in elementary school classrooms are the children of immigrants. There is a question as to how fast people can be acculturated. In France, I think the rate of acculturation of immigrants has been very poor. There is enormous ghettoization, particularly of North African and sub-Saharan African immigrants.
Germany is a bit better.
The Turks came to Germany a generation ago, for the most part, their kids speak perfect German. If you get on a bus and you listen to German school kids, you cannot tell who is of Turkish origin or who is of German origin until you turn around and look at them because they sound exactly the same. How they will deal with other immigrants is unclear. Germany, of course, has had most of its immigrants come from the rest of the European community, so it is a lot of skilled immigration from Eastern Europe, from Spain, Italy. And those European immigrants integrate very well, but that is something that is not a repeatable experiment. I think the real tragedy is with southern Europe: Spain, Italy. That is extremely sad. And of course, Ireland, which used to be the exemplar of a religious Catholic country, really has ceased to be in many respects, and its fertility rate has nosedived as a result, though it has not quite gotten down to Spanish or Italian levels.
The Impact of World War I on European Secularization
Robert R. Reilly:
David, could you comment on the forces of secularization that have instigated this according to you? I mean it can be referred to as the loss of faith, but what are the sources of that loss?
I think World War II and World War I were the great drivers. When you have French priests blessing French cannons to kill German Catholics, and vice versa, and the nations of the world mistake the idea of chosenness as a matter of ethnic, national identity and proceed to kill each other, the credibility of the idea of a universal religion comes sharply into question, so I think nothing killed faith more than the tragedies of the first and the second world wars. We are living through the result of that.
And of course, Americans did not go through that tragedy. The American genius – I think America has many limitations as a country, and I do not mean to sound jingoistic, but we do one thing really well that almost no one else does, which is to assimilate immigrants from every possible country in the world and make them Americans. At least we used to be very good at that, so America never had the sense of fratricide among Christians where French and German Christians would kill each other, each with a sense of the superiority of their own nationality. And I believe that helps explain [it]. We did not go through the tragedy of the first and second world wars. We had significant casualties, but we were not occupied, we were not destroyed, we were not subject to terror in the same way the Europeans were. I think that is why we held on to our religion much longer than anyone else.
The Impact of World War II
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I think what you said is true in spades about World War I. I am wondering if it is as true about World War II for the simple reason that the war can be characterized differently. Certainly, from the German side it was driven by a sense of grievance because of the Versailles Treaty and what the German nation had suffered through reparations and inflation, depression, and so forth. But the Nazi ideology was itself not a Christian religion. Of course, it was an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to replace itself as a new kind of religion, and of course, the same thing happened after the Russian revolution, where again you had a substitute religion, ersatz religion. And these seem to have caused really more damage than these national enmities and wars that you have described.
Yes, I think World War I certainly was the great catastrophe. World War II is complicated because in Germany, although the Catholic Church never accepted Hitler and expressed a good deal of opposition to Hitler, the Protestant Church was a lot more cooperative. The Hitler Youth was the successor organization to the Youth Movement of the German Evangelical Church, and although most German Catholics were uncomfortable with Hitler, the church officially was, German priests continued to bless the troops and operate quite normally. There was really no civil disobedience. There was no active effort to oppose the Hitler regime as hideous and pagan and anti-Christian as it was, so I think that experience really destroyed not just Europe’s [religiosity], it eroded Europe’s Christian faith and it also destroyed Europe’s faith in this national identity.
When you talk to Europeans – I had a very close European friend once. I took him to the Lincoln Memorial, and I showed him the words of the second inaugural address, which are chiseled onto the wall, [in] which Lincoln says if we have to requite every drop of blood drawn from the lash with a drop of blood drawn from swords, still the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. My European friends said you Americans are out of your minds. Nothing is worth that. I mean nothing is worth having war. We have had too much experience with that. It is a horrible thing. Lincoln was a horrible man.
And that is generally what you will find among Europeans. They are so deeply immersed in this post-Christian, post-ideological idea of ‘liberalism/let us all get along under an international bureaucracy that irons out these terrible national differences, which led to these dreadful wars in the past.’ It is very hard to find Germans who feel deeply proud of being German, for example, or Italians who feel deeply proud about being Italians. You have to go to Eastern Europe to countries that were suppressed by communism for two generations to find people who really feel great about being Poles or Hungarians or Czechs.
Robert R. Reilly:
That is a very telling remark.
I remember being in Germany [in] about 1981 in a meeting. I was with my friend who was the Associate Director of the U.S. Information Agency, he himself a professor of political science, and the discussion got to around the area which we are having our discussion. And he said to the Germans, how do you express love for your country? I think it was whether they had a word for patriotism. And they said they did not. And he said, how do you express love for the country, and the room went silent. They said we do not know. We do not know how to do that.
But there is a very peculiar and obviously deep reason for that because of the effect of World War II and the Nazi regime and the incredible damage it did, but David, you also refer to other things in your essay and you talk about the cartoonish metaphysics of Jean-Paul Sartre, who absurdly said that existence precedes essence in his form of existentialism, though that eventually led him to Stalinism (that is a side remark). But this is obviously the metaphysics at the basis of the movement of self-identification that you have talked about. There is the influence of that.
I will just close with this and ask for your comment. You see this metaphysics absorbed in some religions, and here in the United States, some of the Protestant churches are full on with the movement of self-identification.
Willingness to Fight and Fertility Rates
If you cease believing that the past is important, that what is handed down by the thousands of years of trial and error and sweat and effort of our ancestors is meaningless, and you have to invent your identity from scratch, existentialism I think is essentially an expression of the despair of the first world war. I think there is certainly in Kierkegaard and some of the founders of existentialism, there are some important insights, but as it was developed by Heidegger and Sartre as a pure vehicle for self-invention, it became a catastrophic intellectual movement, and it catalyzed a great deal of what we are seeing.
There is one idea which I mentioned in that article, which I would like to mention. There is a very close relationship between willingness to defend one’s country and fertility rates. The Gallup poll in 2015 asked people in several dozen countries, [64 countries], are you willing to fight for your country? The absolute bottom was [Japan], The Netherlands, and Germany, I think [11, 15], and 18 percent respectively. And Finland was up in the  percent range. Israel, Israeli Jews, are up in the  percent range, so quite a big spread.
And there is a very close statistical relationship between willingness to fight for one’s country and fertility rates. So, what I concluded from that is if there is nothing you are willing to die for, there aint much you are willing to live for either, and the passion that allows people to give their lives for their country, in the extreme case, is the same kind of passion that leads people to want to create a future for their children and have children. And as I said, that passion is a terribly dangerous thing, but without it, we just stopped being there. We stopped viewing our lives as having any importance. And somehow reviving that passion without killing each other is the great challenge of our times.
The Self-Invention Movement in the United States
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, on the other hand the thinkers you have mentioned, Sartre and Heidegger, are Europeans, yet the self-invention movement is almost worse in the United States than it is anywhere else.
Well, yes, there are two brilliant books about this. One, [American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, is] by Joshua Mitchell at Georgetown University. He is a Protestant. The other, [An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, is] by Joseph Bottum, former editor of First Things, is a Catholic. I am not going to try to accurately represent their views. I would urge people to read them, but in a sense, becoming an American is a conversion experience. You leave your culture, and you come, and you develop a new culture as an American. You become an American. In effect, you adopt the culture of American Protestants.
Now, if we take God out of that and make every individual his or her own God who can invent him or herself, then we get the same kind of impulse for self-transformation which was so powerful in taking people from a hundred countries and turning them into Americans, and instead that impulse turns them into woke identifiers with some of the weirdest things we could imagine. So, the secularization of the American Protestant impulse, in Joseph Bottum’s and Joshua Mitchell’s account, explains why we in the United States seem to have it worse than anyone else.
We really have not had a whole lot of ideas that are original. The ideas of the founders were original in political philosophy, but we always pick up our intellectual trends from overseas. As Alan Bloom says, the goofiest American radical is really dependent on some kind of German intellectual of 100 years ago.
The Distortion of America’s Founding
Robert R. Reilly:
Yes, well, you know, I recall a student telling me that at his, in fact, Catholic university, in the class on political science, the professor was dealing with the American founding and took the view that it was fatally compromised, and that the disorders from which we suffered today are direct if just in consequence of those faulty principles. The students resisted a bit, but by the end of the course, they said, okay, you have convinced us, we agree, but what are we supposed to do now? In other words, he had undercut not necessarily any religious sense, but certainly any sense of civic religion or why they would wish to serve their country in any capacity, which leads, it seems to me, to the kind of anomie that you spoke of in your article.
Absolutely, the idea that America was founded on slavery, that is the 1619 project, is completely false historically. It is completely wrong. There are certainly parts of America that had a good deal to do with slavery. It ignores the fact that we sacrificed half a million Union lives to eliminate slavery. We fought the only war in history that was really a crusade for human freedom with an altruistic foundation. Further, this poisons the idea of America, but I think without the religious impulse, with only the liberal, individualistic side of the American founding, we tend to tip into a kind of woke religion.
Now, there is a critique from some Catholic scholars, like Patrick Deneen for example, who think the founding was too rooted in liberalism, in secular liberalism. That is a debate I do not want to get into because I am certainly not a scholar of the founding. I think there is certainly something to it, but what we found is that to the extent we lose our traditional religion, we do not get into a sort of secular kind of liberal spin, but instead we reinvent the religion as a secular religion with witch hunts and witch burnings and hysteria that would have frightened the good burgers of Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s.
Restoring the Sense of Sacred
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, if I recall correctly, Eric Voegelin spoke of this as immanentizing the eschaton, which leads to all of these secular distortions of what properly belongs to transcendence and religion. Let me close, David, with perhaps the most important question. You have spoken very persuasively about the importance of the sacred, but how do you restore it? What are the sources of renewal there?
Well, I think it has to come from the top and the bottom at the same time. America is a funny kind of country. We are Protestant in character and in a sense, we have always been a big, evangelical tent meeting. I say this as a Jew. My religion is very different from a tent meeting. It is more like a study hall, but America has always had waves of secularization and religious fervor.
Nothing really looked less promising than the America of the 1850s. The slave party was in power. We were about to break up. Abraham Lincoln was a failed one-term congressman, one of the most obscure figures in politics. No one could have imagined that a Lincoln could be elected in the first place and that someone with so little promise and experience would turn out to be the closest thing that America produced to a biblical prophet. I think that our capacity to revive ourselves and to be summoned to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature is unlike that of any country because of our political and emotional makeup.
I believe that people of faith and goodwill at every level have got to do their best to tell young people that the false gods of identity will only lead them to misery and ruin, and that their ancestors, who for thousands of years looked for God in a different way, had something important to tell them. But we also need leadership that can summon people to sacrifice, to great purpose, to great accomplishments, and revive our sense of commitment to the country. It has to happen at all levels, and I am not entirely pessimistic about the United States because we have come back from a very bad position many times before.
Robert R. Reilly:
You know, David, I think I recall it was at the Oxford Union in the 1930s that a majority of the students voted that they would not defend king and country. And of course, a few years later all those young men did precisely that. It seems to me that the United States is insulated in a bubble of extraordinary prosperity that has in many ways insulated people from reality and allowed them to dabble in the nonsense of the self-identity movement. Really serious crises have a tendency to pop that kind of bubble.
I am not the only one who speaks of the period in which we are living now as a pre-war period, and it might be that unfortunately it takes a challenge at that level, which people expect to come from China, for people to create the necessary conditions for people to recall precisely what it is worth living for, and what it is worth fighting for and perhaps dying. That may be a sobering thought, but it has happened before and that might be a source of renewal.
War with China would be a tough one because we cannot fight it on the ground. It could go nuclear very quickly and nuclear war would not be good for anybody. We really hate that when it happens. But I certainly think that the challenge posed from China should wake us up. I have been waiting for the Sputnik moment to occur for years. As you mentioned, I wrote a book about China and its ambitions to become the dominant power in the world. We should have had that kind of response already. The fact that we have not makes me want to check our pulse.
Robert R. Reilly:
Yes, well, certainly the challenge is here, so we await the full response that is necessary to meet it. And I am afraid we are out of time, but I would like to thank David Goldman for speaking to us today on how the survival of the West depends on the sacred. I invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute website to see the large catalog of past lectures and talks that we have sponsored, including the two prior ones by David Goldman. Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly, director of the Westminster Institute.