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    painting of the prodigal son returning home

    What Is the West without Christendom?

    The church’s retreat to the margins of society could be a much-needed step in the direction of the cross.

    By Andrew Wilson

    September 5, 2023
    • Christopher Zimmerman

      Yes, Jefferson was right that equality and human rights are “sacred” truths, not “self-evident” ones. But it's ironic, if not absurd, to hold him up as an exemplar here. Like other Founding Fathers, he was hardly the avuncular Christian the home schooling set seems to revere, but a slave-holder famously known to have impregnated his best known maid, Sally Hemings. As for his personal faith, it was deeply colored by the sort of dependence on reason that Wilson decries. Hence his compilation of the famous Jefferson Bible, which edits out everything he conceived to be unbelievable. The theologian Eberhard Arnold once wrote that Christians have only themselves to thank for the antichristian character of society. One can only wonder what he'd say about the nasty culture wars now being fought in Christ's name. If it's hypocrisy that's responsible for Western Christianity having been pushed, and continuing to be pushed, to the margins - the sort of lofty babble that defines equality as a religious principle, while holding slaves - we should, as Wilson avers, be thankful. To Jefferson's slaves, it was clearly neither sacred nor self-evident.

    • Fiona Winn

      I so agree. And what would that then look like? And what might this mean for the institutional church? And who is going to do the work?

    • Michael Nacrelli

      As Os Guinness has stated, the post-Christian West is a "cut flower" civilization, doomed to wither apart from a spiritual revival.

    • Rev. Graham M. Patterson


    In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking him to edit the Declaration of Independence in time for a meeting the following morning. “The inclosed paper has been read and with some small alterations approved of by the committee,” Jefferson explained. “Will Doctr. Franklyn be so good as to peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”footnote

    Franklin was at home recovering from gout and made very few changes. But one of them would have epochal significance. Jefferson had originally written that “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”

    Franklin crossed out the last three words and replaced them with one: “self-evident.”footnote

    It was a portentous edit. Jefferson’s version, despite his theological skepticism, presented the equality of men and the rights they held as grounded in religion: they are “undeniable” because they are “sacred” truths that originate with the Creator. By contrast, Franklin’s version grounded them in reason. They are “self-evident” truths, which are not dependent on any particular religious tradition but can easily be grasped as logically necessary by anyone who thinks about them for long enough.footnote

    To which the obvious response is: no, they are not. There are plenty of cultures in which it is not remotely self-evident to people that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, let alone that these rights include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the prerogative to abolish any government that does not preserve them. Most human beings in 1776 did not believe that at all, which is partly why the Declaration was required in the first place. (This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” as opposed to saying simply “these truths are self-evident.”) Some of the founders had not quite believed it themselves just fifteen years earlier. Billions of people today still don’t.

    painting of the prodigal son returning home

    Lucas Gassel, Landscape with the return of the prodigal son. Oil on oak panel, ca. 1500–1569.

    The fundamental equality of human beings, and their endowment with inalienable rights by their Creator, are essentially theological beliefs. They are neither innately obvious axioms nor universally accepted empirical truths nor rational deductions from things that are. There is no logical syllogism that begins with undeniable premises and concludes with “all people are equal” or “humans have God-given rights.” The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov expressed the non sequitur at the heart of Western civilization with a deliciously sarcastic aphorism: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.”footnote

    Many of us find this unsettling. We are inclined to see equality and human rights as universal norms, obvious to everyone who can think for themselves. But in reality they are culturally conditioned beliefs that depend on fundamentally Christian assumptions about the world. Friedrich Nietzsche made this point with angry brilliance: the obsession with alleviating the suffering of the weak and marginalized, within an ethical framework that valorizes humility, fairness, charity, equality, and freedom (as opposed to nobility, pride, courage, and power), is the result of the “slave morality” introduced by Christianity, with its crucified Savior and its claims about weak things being chosen to shame the strong.footnote Coming from a very different angle, Yuval Noah Harari shows how human rights, likewise, have no foundation if they are not rooted in Christian anthropology. “There are no such things as rights in biology,” he explains. Expressed in biological terms, the Declaration of Independence would read very differently: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”footnote

    The fundamental equality of human beings, and their endowment with inalienable rights by their Creator, are essentially theological beliefs.

    Jefferson was right the first time.footnote Equality and human rights are “sacred” truths, not “self-evident” ones. They are irreducibly theological, grounded in specifically Judeo-Christian beliefs about God and his creation of humans in his image, and there is no particular reason why societies with different theological foundations should not reach very different conclusions.

    Many have.

    The last two centuries have provided plenty of other metaphors for post-Christianity. Consider the common academic practice of replacing BC and AD with BCE and CE, as if the Common Era was grounded in “self-evident” truth rather than “sacred” belief. Or take the 9/11 wars, in which Western nations were so convinced of the universality and “self-evidence” of their values that they cheerfully deposed foreign governments, on the assumption that equality, democracy, and human rights would flourish naturally in their place. We could look at Communist Russia, a murderous state committed to doctrinaire atheism, yet motivated by a desire to inaugurate a new world of peace and justice, according to the teaching of its founding Jewish prophet in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Even the Beatles, announcing themselves to be bigger than Jesus while singing songs about the ultimacy of love and peace that could only have been written, let alone sold millions of copies, within a thoroughly Christianized culture, embody the irony.footnote

    The modern West is post-Christian in the same sort of way that it is postindustrial. Neither Christianity nor industrialization have been truly left behind, for all that our use of “post-” language implies they have. Their cultural footprints remain enormous, even when the churches and factories have been turned into flats. What has happened, rather, is that society has been so irrevocably shaped by their influence that we can think of their legacy as secure and begin to contemplate moving “beyond” them into a wide variety of new possibilities, according to the demands of the market. So we make postindustrial choices – going vegan, converting our power plants into urban gardens, replacing gas boilers with wood-burning stoves, and so forth – precisely because we live in the age of the machine, and we do not fear running out of calories, power, or heat.

    In that sense, the post-Christian world is living off its inheritance. The disturbing question is: What if the legacy runs out? One pessimistic take, available in all good bookshops, is that without the substructure of Christianity to support it, the West will increasingly lose its moral consensus, intellectual coherence, and economic advantage, and collapse into a weird chimera of nihilism, tribalism, and decadence. A more optimistic person might draw on T. S. Eliot’s observation that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else” and contend that, as yet, there is no sign of anything close to a religious, moral, and imaginative system that could replace Christianity.footnote They might welcome the church’s retreat to the margins as a much-needed step in a cruciform direction, pregnant with new opportunities, or even hail it as the victory of Christianity over Christendom.footnote

    But there is another scenario for a post-Christian world that has spent all its inheritance. In this story, having squandered his legacy and run into trouble, even to the point of hiring himself out to other masters to make ends meet, the estranged son finally remembers that his father is still alive and his family home is still there. He comes to his senses, swallows his pride, and begins the long walk home – whereupon he lifts his eyes to the horizon and sees his father, jubilant and tearful, sprinting down the road toward him.

    Excerpted from Remaking the World by Andrew Wilson, copyright ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers,


    1. Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin, June 21, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed December 21, 2022.
    2. For a reconstruction of the draft and how it became the final version, see Julian P. Boyd, The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text as Shown in Facsimiles of Various Drafts by Its Author, Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945). For a shorter account see Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 309–13.
    3. There is plenty of literature on the meaning of “self-evident” in the Declaration and how it differs from other eighteenth-century (and twenty-first-century) uses; a good survey is provided in C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It (New York: Encounter, 2019), 69–95. 
    4. Quoted in Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 596. 
    5. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin, 2013). 
    6. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Vintage, 2011), 123. For a fuller argument, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). 
    7. Thomas S. Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), 50–56, shows how Jefferson reworked George Mason’s wording in the Virginia Declaration of Rights to make it more explicit that these rights derive from their Creator.
    8. Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 470–98.
    9. T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society (London: Faber, 1939), 13. 
    10. See the fascinating essay of David Bentley Hart, “No Turning Back: Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘After God,’” Commonweal 148, no. 7 (July/August 2021).
    Contributed By AndrewWilson Andrew Wilson

    Andrew is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London, and has degrees in history and theology from Cambridge (MA) and King’s College London (PhD).

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