For many Canadians, Pope Francis’s recent apology for the treatment of some indigenous persons by those representing the Catholic Church was not enough. Murray Sinclair, the lawyer who chaired Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared: “It was more than the work of a few bad actors — this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” reported the Washington Post.
That opinion appears to be the default of the entire commission. The American Conservative’s Declan Leary observed in an article at The Lamp earlier this year that “the commission seems to oppose evangelism as a matter of principle.”
Would that this opinion were limited to government bureaucrats of our northern neighbor. Yet this is an era of reappraising everything about our Western civilizational inheritance. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ May 2022 “Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report,” which Helen Andrews cites in her recent TAC article on Indian boarding schools, speaks disparagingly of missionary activities among American Indians, including encouraging them to abandon their tribal religious beliefs in favor of Christianity. The Australian government has issued similar reports criticizing missions down under as being “designed to erase peoples’ cultural identity.”
Similar charges are leveled at Christian missionaries wherever they performed their work. “To send missionaries to Africa and Asia to convert the native people to Christianity is religious colonialism,” say even many Christians. Academics and journalists for years have discussed the resurgence of paganism among Europeans and people of European ancestry, often framed as a repudiation of the imperialist imposition of Christianity upon pagan peoples.
Every anti-Christian, pro-pagan example offered employs the same general talking points: narrow-minded Christian missionaries since the Dark Ages have upended traditional beliefs and practices, coercing indigenous peoples to abandon their pluralist worldview in favor of the coercive monolith that is institutionalized, doctrinally intolerant and constrained Christianity. “Pagan beliefs differ, but many uphold the pluralistic view that there are many valid religious paths,” explains the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. It continues: “Today, many people are drawn to Paganism for its affirmation of female, LGBT, and queer people.”
Such comments are telling. For the language of pluralism and tolerance, especially those in supposedly oppressed victim categories, coupled with the foregrounding of feminism and alternative sexual identities, really just reflects the ideology of the progressive left. The more “exotic” and contrary to “Eurocentric,” patriarchal norms a group’s beliefs and lifestyles, the more liberals eagerly fawn over them as worthy of commendation and imitation. Novelty and “authenticity” are what count, and those are a singular province of various oppressed groups.
Of course, the application of tolerance and celebration is never evenly distributed in the woke paradigm of activism, which is ever in search of new hierarchies to dismantle. Frankly, it can’t be. As I’ve argued before, any belief system that aims to make a claim on truth and “the good life” is by default going to target and seek to undermine competing ideologies. Liberal paeans to disinterested neutrality, tolerance, diversity and inclusion are disingenuous in the face of mounting examples of how belligerently they seek to enervate and coerce their enemies.
It has always been that way, even in the tradition of classical liberalism. Locke argues in A Letter Concerning Toleration that the sovereign is duty-bound to forbid and ban any doctrines that are adverse to good morals. Congress refused Utah statehood for decades after the territory had met the population requirement because of the Church of Latter Day Saints’ promotion of polygamy. The Warren Court in Sherbert v. Verner (1963) ruled that states can refuse to accommodate religiously motivated conduct if they have a “compelling interest” to do so.
The tension, however, becomes more acute when the institutions representing our liberal regime expand what counts as “compelling interest” to such a degree that it aims to limit not only obscure religious practices like chicken-sacrificing Santeria, but the very institutions that served as an integral ballast to the entire Western political and cultural project.
As the beliefs and practices of the ersatz religion of woke, secular progressivism become more dominant in the West, the more they will be tempted to wage open war on those of traditionalist Christianity. You see early signs of this in the State Department’s truculent pro-LGBTQ+ tactics or the obsessive efforts of international organizations to push population control in Africa and India.
In the case of Christianity (and by extension Christian missionary work), our elites now say its practitioners must conform to the doctrines and taboos of our aggressive (and self-assured) secular regime. You can have your church, but unless it tows the line on the latest racial and sexual dogmas, it will be labeled bigoted and backwards, its adherents scorned, censured, and hopefully canceled by our elite institutions. You can have your missionary work, as long as it is focused solely on providing non-parochial medical, social, or educational services, and carefully avoids evangelization or any attempt to impose your peculiar beliefs on others. Otherwise it’s “Christian supremacy” and should be bullied into oblivion with all the force the state can muster.
The problem, from a historic Christian point of view, is that the Gospel is supremacist. It argues that it, and it alone, communicates the full truth about God and man. It is intolerant of contradictory belief systems, especially those that vitiate human freedom and dignity (this is why, for example, Christian missionaries have typically been virulently opposed to human sacrifice and abortion). Of course, for those Christians who subscribe to natural-law theory, there is much good outside of the faith and more than enough common ground upon which to build a polis with those who do not believe in Christ or His teachings. (Indeed, Christianity has been far more tolerant of its detractors or subversives than its competitors).
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Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that as our post-Christian culture develops more of a swagger stemming from its own sense of indomitable power, it manifests an intolerance similar, if twisted, to that found in biblical Christianity. It’s not just the evils perpetrated by individual Christians that must be apologized for, but the very message of Christianity itself.
Such demands for apologies are thus a warning sign for what is yet to come: an increasingly high-stakes battle between two visions of man’s nature and his end. One reminds man of his noble origins, inherent dignity, and eternal destiny. The other is a bizarre, obnoxious mimicry.
For anyone familiar with the history of the Americas prior to European settlement, or the character of northern European paganism prior to successful Christian missions, we already know enough to reject the blinkered portrayal of pluralist tribal societies living in harmony with each other and nature. Just ask all the peoples sacrificed to the gods of the Aztecs, Cahokia Mound Builders, or Vikings. Those were not years (or centuries) we should want to revisit. And certainly not apologize for attempting, often with heroic sacrifice on the part of generations of selfless missionaries, to improve and redeem.