Joseph Sobran. Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society. FGF Books, 2015. 425 pp.
“On the whole, the secularist media seem to be resigned to the election of a Catholic to the papacy” (210). This line, written in 2005 shortly after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, is vintage Joe Sobran. It is not just extremely witty. In a few words, it communicates so much: the stability of Roman Catholic doctrine, the hatred of that doctrine by so many moderns, and those moderns’ reluctant acknowledgment that the church is not inclined to change in order to suit them.
Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society, where this line has most recently appeared, is the latest published collection of the essays of Joseph Sobran (1946–2010), one of the most dynamic and controversial journalists of the last generation. Famously fired by William F. Buckley from National Review in 1993 after twenty-one years as editor amid charges of anti-Semitism (an episode recounted in the volume), Sobran continued thereafter to write for many other publications and also became the author of his own newsletter.
Subtracting Christianity features selected writings spanning twenty-five years from various publications, including multiple syndicates, the Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, and SOBRAN’S. It is the second volume of Sobran’s essays the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation has published since his death. (The first was Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years in 2012.) The volume’s unifying theme is the problems created by the contemporary world’s attempts to remove Christian influence from society and culture. The title essay, which appears about midway through the book, is from 1999. In it, Sobran writes, “Modern culture is a negative, not a positive thing. It’s what is left when you subtract Christianity from Christian culture—so it’s a barren, bloodless, desiccated, and uninspiring thing, sometimes called ‘secular humanism’” (185). Sacrifice, honor, nobility, and chastity all become meaningless and absurd. Without the ability to inspire, secularized culture becomes legalistic and social relations turn into legal and political relations. Most of the essays in the book turn on this idea in some way.
The four-hundred-page volume is divided into eleven sections, beginning with affirmative defenses of the truth of Christianity and reminiscences of Sobran’s own spiritual journey. Here my attention rested on “The Reluctant Anarchist” (2002), in which Sobran traces his meandering journey over several decades toward philosophical anarchism. I noted this piece in particular because I heard it delivered, prior to its publication, as a speech at the Ludwig von Mises Institute before a very enthusiastic audience. Having only recently discovered both Sobran and libertarianism at that point, I was intensely interested in his reasoning through the failure of the US Constitution to prevent the triumph of modern liberalism in the twentieth century. His account of discovering the ideas of Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, coupled with a rediscovery of St. Paul’s and the church fathers’ writings about the state, was compelling to me in 2002 and remains so today.
These early sections also feature several moving essays in which Sobran recounts his own apostasy and rediscovery of the Christian faith in early adulthood. His love for the “strange moral authority” of the Catholic Church is evident; “I don’t defend the Church’s morality because I am a Catholic. I became and remain a Catholic because the Church maintains a consistent morality—while the rest of the world keeps veering off into moral fads” (46). Although most of these essays stress distinctively Catholic ideas, for example, transubstantiation, Sobran also writes appreciatively of Protestants, who “must be among the world’s most decent people” and are often “too nice for their own good” (43).
The heart of the book is the third, fourth, and fifth sections, which describe the “new dark age” of secular liberalism and the “war on Christian society” along with detailed examinations of “noteworthy persons, historic and modern.” For Sobran, the liberals’ “new morality” consists in large part of absolute sexual autonomy and government-sponsored removal of any inconveniences it causes. In “The Real News of the Century” (2000), we find a characteristically robust attack on this position. Sobran argues that all civilized people in world history have recognized some form of natural sexual morality, “perversely confirmed by the universal phenomena, especially in wartime, of obscene sexual insults, sexual torture, and rape, all of which are felt to be ultimate degradations of enemies” (83). In wartime, “men passionately intent on doing evil instinctively express their real convictions in violence against the wives, mothers, and daughters of their foes” (83). Liberals, who can be extremely moralistic on practically every other question, “single out sexual conduct as a privileged circle, where normal moral thinking doesn’t apply” (83). Sobran labels this pretending not to recognize the difference between good and evil as hypocrisy of the worst sort. In the end, though, for him the refusal to call things what they are is just one more fruit of the Left’s hatred of Christianity.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of the book is the playful examination of “noteworthy persons.” Sobran fails to appreciate John Milton sufficiently, finding his manner “tedious and priggish,” but his comments on Samuel Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis are delightful. One example must suffice: “We can only regret that Johnson did not live to confront the Political Heresy in its full bloom [in the French Revolution]; he would never have gotten around to writing a full treatise about it, but he would have found succinct words more memorable than any treatise” (152).
Subtracting Christianity’s remaining six sections focus on relatively narrow topics: abortion, the “Historical Jesus,” papal politics, gay rights, Zionism, and Islam. Throughout, as readers will have come to expect by this point, Sobran pulls no punches. Progressives perusing these essays may dismiss them as unseemly examples of a straight white man’s “punching down,” but in fact most of them are spirited counterattacks in response to one writer or another’s rhetorical assaults on Sobran’s beloved Catholic Church. For example, “Sacraments and Sodomy” (2003) is at once an expression of sympathy for Christians who experience feelings of same-sex attraction and a reply to the “self-absorbed childishness” of popular blogger and gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan, who publicly declared his refusal to attend Mass as long as the Church “failed” to alter its historic teaching on sexuality to embrace homosexual conduct. Sobran observes, “[Sullivan] can’t admit that a principle may be at stake; he demands that the moral law itself be altered to accommodate homosexuals” (306).
Even conservatives may feel squeamish when reading the section titled “For Fear of the Jews.” As noted above, William F. Buckley fired Sobran from National Review in 1993, claiming that a series of his articles criticizing the influence of Israel’s lobbying interests was “contextually anti-Semitic.” In other words, according to Buckley, if Sobran had written similar criticisms of Arab states’ or China’s lobbyists, no one would have thought twice, but the memory of the Holocaust demands that Israel’s lobby be exempt from such treatment. For his part, Sobran believed that “the Jewish lobby is, if not Washington’s 800-pound gorilla, at least in the 500-pound range” and that frank criticism of it had to be on the table (329).
Several of the essays in this section confront in a healthy way Jewish critics of Christianity and the much-maligned Pope Pius XII. Others are sharply critical of Israel and its influence. The most delicate is the 2002 essay that gives its title to the section, not so much for its contents (which deal with the ambiguity of the term “anti-Semitism” and the double standard insisted upon by Israel for its actions) as for its original audience, the annual conference of David Irving’s Institute for Historical Review. The consternation among mainstream conservatives occasioned by Sobran’s appearance before this group was intense; his refusal to cancel the speech allegedly scuttled his opportunity to write a regular column for Patrick Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine, which itself was usually more than ready to take a skeptical line on Israel. Unfortunately, despite Sobran’s declaration that “I expect to be judged by what I say, not whom I say it to” (358), to this day some critics think his guilt by association is all they need to know about him.
Viewed from the perspective of 2017, many of Sobran’s observations are surprisingly timely and his predictions unnervingly prescient. For example, in “Advancing toward Savagery” (2000), Sobran blew the whistle on the selling of aborted children and their body parts. The general public, of course, remained unaware of this practice until the Center for Medical Progress released its bombshell videos of Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards discussing a potential sale of fetal remains in 2015. Several years earlier in “Love and Marriage” (1996), Sobran confronted the incipient movement for same-sex marriage with a brief but cogent argument centered on the social necessity of creating an environment conducive to childrearing; “The whole point of the institution is to make men responsible to their wives and children; no reform that loses sight of that purpose can succeed” (314). In its essentials, this argument is the same as that made by Robert P. George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson in the widely discussed 2012 book What Is Marriage?. Sobran noted, moreover, that same-sex-marriage advocates wanted already in the mid-1990s to redefine marriage to eliminate the presumption of monogamy; such observations became commonplace in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges. I found myself repeatedly consulting the original publication dates of essays that speak so directly to our historical moment and shaking my head in disbelief upon realizing how long ago they had been written.
Perhaps the major shortcoming of this collection is that its topical arrangement results in one’s reading the same anecdote or rhetorical point repeatedly in different essays in the space of a few pages, even though the essays themselves might have been published years or decades apart. There may have been no good way around this problem, but I confess to experiencing a bit of tedium after reading, for example, two discussions of Hilaire Belloc’s 1936 warning of a resurgent Islam within ten pages of each other.
On the whole, though, Subtracting Christianity is lively reading. Sobran’s prose style is bracing and worthy of emulation; a perusal of this volume makes clear why so many conservative writers of the last forty years expressed admiration for his essays. The book makes a fine addition to the collection of anyone interested in paleoconservative writing or Christian cultural apologetics.
Jason Jewell is a professor of humanities at Faulkner University.