Robert P. George on the Foolproof Test for Paganism
The great Jewish scholar Milton Himmelfarb summarized the matter in a single sentence: “Judaism is against paganism.” Note that Himmelfarb spoke in the present tense. Let no one imagine that the temptation to idolatry and paganism is a matter of the distant past, when primitive peoples offered sacrifice to the sun or prayed to stone outcroppings and golden calves.
The essence of paganism is idolatry: the self-aggrandizing worship of false gods in place of the God of love who is Creator of the universe and Lord of Life. How can we know that an idol, a false god, and not the true God, is being worshiped? I submit to you that there is a foolproof test: False gods always demand the blood of innocents. A pagan culture is always, in the end, a culture of death.
Where the innocent and just are slain, there the god being worshiped is not the God of Israel, the Lord of Life, but rather Moloch in one or another of his protean disguises. Paganism is a permanent threat. The worship of false gods is a constant temptation.
The Lord of Love
The God of Israel whom Jews and Christians worship is the Lord of Life. He is the author of the comprehensive and absolute commandment: “Thou shalt not kill the innocent and just.” He is the God who says to Israel: “Today I have set before you life and death; choose life!” (Deut. 30:15,19).
And he is a God of love. He lovingly fashions each and every human being in his very image and likeness. He graciously vests us—mere creatures—with the truly God-like powers of reason and freedom. He endows every human being, however humble, however poor, however afflicted, with a sublime dignity.
It is for this reason that the life of every innocent person is strictly and equally inviolable under the moral law. Our fundamental rights as human beings, including the precious right to life, come not from princes, not from legislatures, not from deals (“mutual non-aggression pacts”) we cut with our fellow citizens.
Our rights come as gifts of God himself, and they are therefore in no way revocable by any merely human authority. The duty of those who wield authority on earth is to respect and protect the God-given moral order in which fundamental human rights, above all the right to life, have pride of place.
From the beginning, it has been the mission of the covenanted community of Israel, the chosen people of God, to bear witness to the Lord of Life in defiance of the pagan powers. Whenever Israel faltered in her mission, whenever her people bowed before the golden calf, the prophets of God reminded them that the pagan way is, for all its seductions, the wrong way, the way of death.
They reminded them that the fruit of fidelity to the Torah is the toppling of those bloodthirsty idols and the conversion of people’s hearts to the commandments of the Lord of Life, the God of Love. They reminded them that Judaism is against paganism.
And the prophetic warning applies with equal force to the Christian community, when it falters in its mission. When Christians, to their shame, embraced evil, unjust, anti-life practices—from the burning of heretics to the persecution of Jews—they insulted the Lord in whose name they purported to act.
It was not the God of the Bible whom they served, but a false god. Their sin, as Pope John Paul II beautifully taught by both precept and example, requires from the Christian faithful atonement, repentance, and reform: a “turning back” to the God of Love, the Lord of Life.
The Pagan Test
Rabbi Daniel Lapin has lamented the fact that many Jews in America have abandoned the Torah and substituted for Jewish faith a different religion, that of liberal secularism. This religion, he observes, has its own doctrines, its own rituals, its own codes of behavior. It is a religion of neo-paganism.
What Lapin says of many American Jews is equally true of many American Christians. Secularized liberal Christians will dress up their neo-pagan ideology in the language of virtue—speaking, for example, of “compassion,” of “tolerance,” of “inclusion,” and the like—but the secularist liberal creed is most emphatically un-Christian.
Indeed, liberal secularism is nothing but a neo-pagan creed. And to see that this is true, we need only apply the test: False gods always demand innocent blood. The evidence that a culture is descending into paganism is always manifest in the body count. A pagan culture is always a culture of death. This was true in the ancient Near East and it is true in modern America.
Who can deny that everywhere today the false gods of liberal secularism are exacting their toll? People may call them by high-minded, inspiring, virtuous-sounding names, but whatever people name them, these idols turn out to be the same Baal and Moloch, the same old bloodthirsty tyrants.
As always, it is the blood of the weakest, the most vulnerable, that they crave. Today the unborn, the partially born, and the handicapped newly born are daily sacrificed to the false gods of “choice,” “autonomy,” “self-fulfillment,” “compassion,” and “liberation,” on stainless steel altars, by priests robed in surgical whites, in storefront temples, run by the keepers of the cult, like Planned Parenthood.
Like every religion, neo-paganism has its theologians, and they are skilled in turning even the commands of the Lord of Life to their own ends. Within both the Christian and Jewish communities, its theologians deconstruct biblical and natural-law morality and rationalize even the atrocity of partial-birth abortion. Some try to transform the Talmudic teaching of the priority of the life of the mother, in the extraordinarily rare cases in which pregnancy actually poses a mortal threat, into a general right to abortion, including the killing of children as they emerge from the womb.
The great contemporary scholar of Jewish law David Novak has exposed this distortion. Where there is no mortal threat, “abortion is judged [by Jewish law] to be the unwarranted taking of a ‘life within a life,’ and it is the same prohibition for gentiles as it is for Jews.”
He does not hesitate to call to mind the Shoah in his discussion of the protection owed to unborn human life: “Because of our recent experience of being the prime victims of a worldview that excluded many lives from the sanctity of human personhood, thus rationalizing murder, we Jews should realize that our strictness on the question of abortion is for the sake of greater, not less, inclusiveness in the human community.”
Abortion is not alone among the manifestations of the neo-pagan culture of death. It also offers assisted suicide and euthanasia as the remedy for life’s hardships and tragedies.
And it is not only the frail elderly and terminally ill who are to be afforded their ghoulish “compassion.” Those who offend our sensibilities, who place demands upon our care and resources—the seriously handicapped, the mentally retarded—are now to be defined out of the category of human “persons” whose right to life is to be respected and protected by law.
Notable academics now openly advocate the infanticide of handicapped newborns. They would revise our fundamental law to have us treat these precious children as inferior beings, human nonpersons.
An American Truth
The Nazi killing began with the eugenic murder of the handicapped. The way was paved by “sophisticated,” “progressive” doctors and lawyers, such as Binding and Hoche—not themselves Nazis—who devised the neo-pagan doctrine of lebens unswerten leben, life unworthy of life. To those who would today revive this vile notion in the name of a false compassion, let us say with all our hearts, “Never again! Never again!”
And we must say this not only as Jews and Christians, but as Americans. Our nation’s founders spoke a most profoundly biblical and unpagan truth when they declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal , that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life , liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America, too, in her founding principles and guiding ideals, is against paganism.
Some will step forward to remind us, and they are not wrong to do so, that although our nation was founded on the great principles of divinely grounded equality and natural rights, it was stained in its very founding by the sin of slavery. But let us also recall that great men like Adams and Lincoln rose up to oppose that monstrous pagan practice, and to this end they exhorted the nation to be true to the biblical principles of the founding.
Even if slavery’s abolition would require that “every drop of blood drawn by the lash be repaid by one drawn by the sword,” still, Lincoln declared, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Lincoln knew, and we must not forget, that America , too, is against paganism.
Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.