Roger Scruton—an academically trained English philosopher who now writes full time, the author of eminent treatises such as Modern Philosophy and The Aesthetics of Music—explores, in The West and the Rest:Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, c. 2002) “the vision of society and political order that lies at the heart of ‘Western civilization’” (p. x).
From its inception Christianity held aloft Jesus words: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Two realms, St. Augustine’s two cities—the religious and the political—should co-exist and retain their proper boundaries. “The idea persists in the medieval distinction between regnum and sacerdotium, and was enshrined in the uneasy coexistence of Emperor and Pope on the two ‘universal’ thrones of Medieval Europe” (p. 4).
Consequently, “throughout the course of Christian civilization we find a recognition that conflicts must be resolved and social order maintained by political rather than religious jurisdiction. The separation of church and state was from the beginning an accepted doctrine of the church” in the West. (p. 5). While many religions are tribal or national, Christianity was ever a “creed community,” open to Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen. Flourishing within the Roman Empire, it “adopted and immortalized the greatest of all Roman achievements, which was the universal system of law as a means for the resolution of conflicts and the administration of distant provinces” (p. 21). In the secular realm, Christians were loyal, law-abiding citizens of the state; in the spiritual realm, however, they obeyed God only.
Islam, on the other hand, insists there can be no separation of church and state—all is one under the sovereign authority of Allah and the ulama who claim divinely imparted knowledge and imamswho interpret Mohammed’s edicts in the Koran. Islam is not a political system, but it insists on controlling the political order. “Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction, Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state” (p. 6). Islamic law, the sharia, minutely regulating all kinds of behavior, is envisioned as the perfect resolution to all social as well as religious issues.
In Scruton’s judgment, the separation of church and state began to unravel during in the West during the Enlightenment. This was because it is “impossible to understand the French Revolution if one does not see it as primarily a religious phenomenon” (p. 44). Both the monarchy and the Church were to be destroyed by the Revolution’s “fanaticism and exterminatory zeal” (p. 45). As revolutionary movements and ideologies grew empowered during the next two centuries, a “godless theology” gained momentum and a rather unanticipated “culture of repudiation” emerged, extending even to such hallowed entities as the family.
This is evident in a pervasive “demand for rights” wherein politics degenerates into “a scramble to claim as much from the common resources as they will yield” (p. 68). Added to this is the postmodern repudiation of objective truth and, indeed, reason itself! Enamored of Nietzsche, eminent intellectuals such as Foucault and Derrida recite his prescription: “There are no truths, only interpretations.” An inconsistent and self-contradictory relativism necessarily devolves from this, placidly holding that all cultures, as well as all viewpoints, are equally valid.
“All distinctions are ‘cultural,’ therefore ‘constructed,’ therefore ‘ideological,’ in the sense defined by Marx—manufactured by the ruling classes in order to serve their interests and bolster their power. Western civilization is simply the record of that oppressive process, and the principal purpose of studying it is to deconstruct its claim to our membership” (p. 79). Nothing can be judged, nothing condemned—except, of course, universal truths and objective values and anyone who dares challenge the regnant relativism.
Thus today we have a newly-apologetic West facing a suddenly-militant and aggressive Islam. In an economically globalizing world conflicts inevitably erupt and “the Islamists have identified the core component of the system that they wish to destroy” (p. 134). Globalization’s tentacles, spreading into Muslim lands, revealed a secular society without foundation in divine law, challenging most all the traditions sacred to Islam. “It is the very success of America in founding a common loyalty without a shared religious faith that so incenses the Islamist extremists” (p. 65).
Scruton’s analysis is fresh and insightful. While not the whole story, it tells important truths regarding what distinguishes “the West from the rest” (p. 159).
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.