A New Generation of Conservative Thought

How can a divided nation become one?

By Dr. Grace Vuoto
July 20, 2010

In the heated days of then-candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, the youthful senator from Illinois made a promise that touched the hearts of many Americans: We would no longer be divided.

Rather, he said that, under his leadership, we would become one again. We would no longer be a nation of liberals versus conservatives, Republicans versus Democrats, blacks versus whites, Muslim extremists versus moderates and “red states” versus “blue states.” Exhausted from decades of polarizing debate, the electorate took a leap of faith—on a hope and prayer—that perhaps the passionate candidate held the secret to national unity we have all forgotten. Yet, a few months after he was elected, it was painfully obvious that President Obama would only exacerbate our collective wounds rather than heal them.

Why did Mr. Obama fail in his quest to begin a new era in American politics? He had stumbled, perhaps accidentally, unto the true nature of the source of our unity while he was a candidate: He had repeatedly touted his Christian conversion and heritage. Yet, he soon lost sight of the very insights that had carried him into office. While he was a candidate, based on his rhetoric, there was still a slim chance we would return to the only solvent of political, racial and religious tensions the nation has ever known: our Christian patrimony.

Liberals have by and large succeeded in their attempt to present Christianity as a polarizing, intolerant and divisive force. Yet, the facts of history tell us otherwise: Christianity in both the Western tradition and in American history has been a source of unity and cohesion. By contrast, the more secular America becomes, the more divided it is.

Even were we to concede a liberal fantasy—such as the eradication of Christianity in America—the heated divisions in the body politic would remain. A society based on the idea that individual self-gratification is the height of happiness breeds citizens who are focused on themselves—often at the expense of the collective good. Only when citizens believe that there are universal and eternal truths regarding our common humanity and mission in serving a benevolent Creator are divisions erased and harmony achieved.

Western civilization moved from an era of tribal hatreds and incessant wars into one of greater peace and centralization mostly due to two potent unifiers: Roman law and Christianity. The Romans introduced the revolutionary principle of “Civis Romanus Sum” to all the lands they conquered. This motto, translated as “I am a Roman citizen” was the simple concept that laws would be applied equally to all citizens regardless of their ethnic or tribal origins. The Romans were thus able to create the greatest empire the world had ever known.

In tandem with this revolutionary principle, Christians propagated the novel idea that all citizens had inherent dignity and worth due to the existence of the soul, and that all human beings emanated from the same Creator. Christianity acted like acid upon the hundreds of polytheistic and pagan practices across Europe. By the Middle Ages, it was widely accepted that there was one God, one moral law—and that all other divisions were subordinate to these truths. Subsequently, each of the modern nation-states that were formed, were created by Christian monarchs who touted their divine authority as a means of quelling the wars fought among rival noble families. England, France and the Holy Roman Empire (encompassing modern-day Germany, Central Europe and Italy) were forged at the hands of Christian leaders who imposed their will on often warring feudal lords.

Christian political and religious leaders were masterful at finding ways to compel vastly different peoples to accept the universal truths they sought to propagate. Consider, for example, the work of Pope Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great (590-604). He was eager to convert the inhabitants of the English isle to Christianity. He sent a mission there in 595, led by Augustine of Canterbury, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 598 and is considered to be the founder of the English Church. In a series of letters Pope Gregory wrote to Augustine, we discern the tremendous skill and courage that was used to bring about this dramatic change in England. The Pope instructed Augustine to transform Roman temples into churches and to fuse pagan holidays with Christian teaching, especially altering previous feast days to celebrate Christian martyrs. Thus, with great tact, Pope Gregory and Augustine used the Christian faith to unify the people.

The English medieval historian Bede (672-735) wrote the landmark Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731) which recounts Pope Gregory’s mission. He presents an excerpt from one of the Pope’s sermon regarding the conversion of England:

“The Britons, who formerly knew only their own barbaric tongue, have long since begun to cry the Hebrew Alleluia to the praise of God. The once restless sea now lies quiet before the feet of His saints, and its ungovernable rages, which no earthly princes could tame by the sword, are now quelled at the simple word of His priests in the fear of God. Heathen nations who never trembled before armed hosts now accept and obey the teachings of the humble for now that the grace of the knowledge of God has enlightened them and they see His heavenly truths and mighty wonders, the fear of God restrains them from their former wickedness, and they desire with all their hearts to win the prize of eternal life.”

Notwithstanding the Pope’s desire to preach to the flock, we can detect the enormous impact of Christianity on the English nation. This is narrated and confirmed in great detail by the Venerable Bede.

We used to know and understand these basic facts of history. But as we slip into a dark age of ignorance and strife, even what was once self-evident becomes hotly contested. Our Christian heritage holds the key to our unity; as we drift aimlessly away from the eternal truths of our patrimony, we loosen the very bonds that join us to one another.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.