This column originally appeared in The Washington Times on August 16, 2009.
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together in his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary”… .
– Screwtape (the senior devil in C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters”)
Since time began, the devil has done his best work by sowing doubt. In recent years, many people have abandoned the search for transcendent truth, replacing it with a quest for personal fulfillment. This is the alluring but poisonous siren song of relativism.
A direct threat to Christianity and Judaism, relativism is just as deadly to liberal societies, which is why even nonbelievers need to take the threat seriously. If all values are relative, why prefer liberal democracy over a muscular authoritarianism that “gets things done?” If you’re a judge, why bother trying to faithfully execute the spirit and letter of the law when you can use your own raw power?
The literary monthly the New Criterion earlier this year took on the problem of relativism squarely. Among the essays in the January edition is “The Temptation of Pope Benedict” by Daniel Johnson. Although the title implies that Benedict might himself have a problem, the piece celebrates the pope’s defense of truth.
Having grown up in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger (the pope’s original name) had a front-row seat in a culture shorn of its Judeo-Christian moorings. Over the years (1981-2005), as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before his elevation to pope, Cardinal Ratzinger waged a relentless war on relativism, which he continues to view as the primary foe of civilization.
Mr. Johnson notes that in proportion to the West’s plunge into decadence, Benedict’s resolve to expose the evils of relativism has increased. In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger’s use of the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” four years ago just before he became pope has become a symbol of Christian resistance to godless liberalism. Here’s the passage:
“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.”
Benedict uses the word “dictatorship” deliberately to remind us of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. As Mr. Johnson notes, “Liberalism that is not anchored in natural law, that has no framework of values by which to identify the true and the good — a liberalism at the mercy of relativism — is bound to become illiberal.”
Witness the rise in “human rights” tribunals in Canada and in Western Europe that emit platitudes about “tolerance” while steadily crushing freedom of speech. As journalists like Mark Steyn and clergymen who write politically incorrect letters to the editor are hauled before these boards, the liberal secularists should feel a shiver. The sound of distant cannons is getting closer. You don’t have to believe in God to observe how man, even with the best intentions, can turn tyrannical.
One of relativism’s most dangerous effects is the undermining of the rule of law. Cardinal Ratzinger noted that in Germany, “The Fuehrer was successively declared the only source of law and, as a result, absolute power replaced law. The denigration of law never serves the cause of liberty, but is always an instrument of dictatorship.”
In America, the courts are seizing more and more power. Some judges are showing utter contempt for the idea that power derives from the people in a free republic. How else could one explain the California Supreme Court’s decision to examine state Attorney General Jerry Brown’s absurd claim that the electorate’s November ballot approval of a constitutional marriage amendment was somehow “unconstitutional”? Mr. Brown was daring the court to declare itself the ultimate authority, and the court entertained the notion before pulling back from the precipice and finally affirming the vote.
America’s Founders understood the temptations of power. The Federalist Papers are replete with warnings about unconstrained ambition. John Adams put it bluntly: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The system that has brought more freedom to more people than any other earthly power has withstood civil war, depression, communism, Nazism and radical Islam.
The one force that could bring it to an end, however, is a crippling relativism that begins with the simple question, hatched in hell, and delivered in the garden: “Hath God truly said?”