By Jim Beers
Reading Chesterton has been both a delightful and rewarding pastime for me in so many ways. Simple enjoyment, spiritual growth, and avoiding modern social pitfalls are but a few of the benefits I glean with every new Chesterton adventure. As with other such readers I am sure, attempting to apply Chestertonian observations to the current issues and problems of today is something that is both human and commendable. Attempting to harmonize Chesterton with the political atmosphere of the United States today is however, a disconcerting matter.
An example of the difficulty inherent in applying Chestertonian observations was driven home to me in a conversation between several Chestertonians last year. When it was mentioned that Chesterton had little time for persons that held lukewarm beliefs about important matters; one of the participants mentioned how "Rush" (Limbaugh) had said essentially the same thing on his radio show. The reaction was immediate and not kind to the effect that any comparison between Chesterton and Limbaugh was akin to sacrilege and stupid to boot, end of conversation. That (not the comparison of GKC and Rush but the impossibility of dialogue about Chesterton and today's issues) was a shame because Chesterton's writing, his times, and debates are very relevant to the major issues facing society today.
A short list of such current concerns in the US might include:
- Private property no longer a right protected by government but rather a dispensation to be granted or withdrawn by governmental whim.
- Societal chaos resulting from fatherless children and the disappearance of enduring marriages and family units.
- Race and sex classifications by government to award preferences to some and to deny rights to others thereby dividing society and reversing the maxim "one from many" into "many from one".
- A growing and uncontrollable central government "taking over" medicine, banks, and manufacturing companies while incurring massive debts, designing vehicles and "redesigning" "the economy" much like Soviet planners sought to do for decades and Nazi leaders attempted for a shorter period.
- Elimination of the right of medical workers to refuse to conduct abortions, "mercy"-killings, or to destroy embryos.
- Elimination of the right of religious organizations to refuse to employ those that disagree with their teachings.
- The corrosion of freedom of speech as growing lists of prohibited words and phrases parallel unfettered central government growth.
- The disappearance of State and Local Constitutional authorities as these authorities are absorbed by the central government.
- The use of coerced taxes to fund foreign and domestic abortions, embryo destruction, and "birth" (i.e. "population") control.
- The nature of the relationship of western "developed" nations with societies like Russia, North Korea, Islamic nations, and "undeveloped" nations.
- The driving issue of the moral and societal implications of continued accelerating taxes and unchallenged central government authority increasingly rivaling that of the absolute authority under monarchs, despots, and tyrants throughout history.
Consider the period of Chesterton's life and his writing career. He lived from 1874 to 1936. He wrote extensively from roughly 1900 'til his death in 1936. He dabbled in Socialism early on but then (like so many young idealists) recognized the hollow lies and agendas of the Socialists. He discovered the truth of Christianity and spent the balance of his life growing this belief and sprinkling it throughout his writings on things as diverse as waging war, the nature of nationality, and the ideal of small communities and neighborhoods administered by local governments protected by a benevolent and limited central government. He wrote and debated about literally everything of concern to Englishmen and Christians of his day. It is these people, the challenges they faced, and the ideas of Chesterton's day that I find so relevant to us today.
Consider the following intertwined threads and personalities of Chesterton's day:
- Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto (1848) in London after being chased out of Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. The resulting revolutions and social upheavals put into movement societal changes and spin-offs like the Fabian Socialists and the Russian Revolution (1917).
- Fabian Socialism was founded in England (1884) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and a coterie of followers that included George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. These Fabian Socialists were committed to an all-powerful central government much like the communist model only more gently implemented and headed by intellectually superior luminaries such as themselves. This movement spread to America and has many active and quietly supportive enthusiasts both in and out of government down to the present day.
- Margaret Sanger's sexual revolution, beginning in 1912 and continuing for 50 years, made contraceptives widely available and brought eugenics (selective breeding of humans to "weed out" the "unfit"; the "unfit" being whatever group or condition offends the powerful) into the open as a basis for a future "Scientifically Organized State". Her efforts played a significant part in the creation of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand as the international tools they are today for eliminating "overpopulation" and "unfit" populations. This thinking owed much to the Darwinian theory of "survival of the fittest" as articulated in his 1859 tome ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. Darwin died when Chesterton was only six years old but his theories had spread far and wide by the time Chesterton began writing.
- Hitler's advent and seizure of the German state (1921 - 1933) based on severe intimidation of opponents and Draconian racial and national classifications for unspeakable eugenic principles and purposes. Hitler's promise of a strong economy, jobs, and glory persuaded Germans to look away temporarily as his hold on power became absolute, dissent was eliminated, and "unfit" Germans began to disappear but by then it was too late.
- The 1931 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church introduced the legitimized use of contraceptives and thereby began the growing acceptance in western Christian societies that sex was no longer only legitimate between a married husband and wife with the acceptance of the fact that procreation (children) was the ultimate purpose. The resulting public notion of sex as recreation (even unavoidable recreation by children according to current curricula) contributed greatly to the current societal chaos surrounding same-sex marriage and prevalence, divorce, fatherless children, sex education of the young, the explosion of pornography and sex crimes, school authority superceding parental authority, and the disappearing family as the basic building block of society.
- Certain specifically American phenomena during the Chestertonian era would include:
1.) President (1901-1909) Teddy Roosevelt's expansion of the federal landholdings led to the subsequent notion that such Parks, Forests, and Refuges were no longer within any State and therefore not subject to State authority or responsive to local communities. It became accepted that such landholdings should be constantly grown and treated like independent estates similar to Royal lands under a monarchy. Concepts such as a federally controlled "economy" (anti-business) and the need to subordinate human private property rights to the "needs" of the "natural" world were also first articulated by TR.
2.) This was further expanded by President (1912 - 1920) Woodrow Wilson who implemented an unlimited progressive income tax to fund federal expansion, changed the manner in which US Senators were elected (thereby changing them from advocates for their certain state to international dandies much like a House of Lords), and instituted governmental racial classifications to segregate the federal workplace and the military.
I leave it to you to judge the importance of Margaret Sanger, Darwin, and the 1931 Lambeth Conference on the American family; or Hitler's relevance (popularly elected; big spender; road builder; car designer; killer of the helpless like the mentally retarded as well as dissenters, Gypsies, and Jews) to current governmental race and sex classifications for all manner of uses in today's society or to current massive government "Shovel-Ready Stimulus" funding programs to save us like 1932 Germans or to the growing list of "control" (i.e. life taking) of the unborn, depressed, ill, and disabled among us with government funding and support. I leave it to you to agree or not that Fabian Socialists and Republican Teddy Roosevelt and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson each had a part in setting in motion the shift of the US government from a Constitutional Republican form to a centrally-controlled state with only those rights that government chooses to allow.
In my limited (but always expanding) reading of Chesterton I do not find the arguments so common today in the US about Taxation Levels and The Role and Size of Government. Rather I find him and Shaw talking of mankind, societies, and ideas: Shaw as an atheist and Chesterton as a believer in God. Chesterton enjoyed dismissing the "specialists" and "scientists" using their "expertise" as a reason for granting them power while he defended the rights and opinions of every man to shape the world and community in which he lived. Chesterton advocated a Distributist society that I for one am at a loss to see existing under any all-powerful central government but rather wholly dependent on a limited central government and the sort of State and Local Constitutional authority that is rapidly disappearing all over the United States today. Shaw, on the other hand, extols the "intelligent" as rightful rulers while ignoring (or downplaying?) the absolute dependence his Socialist society proposals would have for a large and all-powerful central government.
It is this difference in perspective between today and 100 years ago regarding the same issue - Socialism and an all-powerful central government - that can prove beneficial to those of us facing these threats today. While we confront the results of recent trends like the debilitations of welfare, animal rights, environmental dogmas masquerading as science, and Islamic terrorism; Chesterton and Shaw wrestled over vegetarianism, eugenics, Darwinian science, Prussian dreams of conquest, and the horrors of the Communist rule in Russia. Their notions and reactions to these threats are like studying the history of the Constitutional Convention or the Revolutionary War as we prepare to defend our Constitutional Rights or our very nationhood from foreign threats.
For instance, what of the morality of coerced taxation for ostensible government "charity"? Are there any limits that a non-wartime government should recognize when it comes to taxation? What is the morality of paying taxes that are used for abortions or euthanasia or destroying embryos? How to best respond to terrorism? What limits ought to apply when defending a nation from harm or a home or family from danger? When is carrying a weapon justified; why ought it to be a right? What does "unalienable" truly mean?
Chesterton speaks at length of the necessity for national sovereignty and local controls while Shaw infers a worldwide Socialist hegemony as inevitable. What references are present in their debates and writings to the nascent League of Nations that Wilson so enthusiastically embraced? What relevance has that to the United Nations of today? What particular aspects of the German embrace of Hitler caught Chesterton's eye? Chesterton rejected the British campaign against the Boers while enthusiastically supporting the British campaign in WWI; what precedents might his arguments provide us for confronting Islamic terrorism or the likes of Russia and North Korea? What of the understanding that Chesterton and his friend Belloc had 100 years ago concerning historic and current (to them) relations with Islam: what were their attitudes and how has history born them out?
The challenge is to find the references and to place them in a modern context. They are there in Chesterton's writing. All that is needed is a willingness to read him and an understanding of history that allows you to recognize the relevance. After that, all that is needed is a forum to share what you found. By the way, the fellow that unwittingly mentioned GK and "Rush" in the same sentence was yours truly, a skeptic genuinely disenchanted with the current American political scene and earnestly seeking Truth in a world every bit as topsy-turvy as the one GK Chesterton addressed so well, not so long ago.
Jim Beers 5 May 2009
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